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.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Dark weekend.

I am going to ramble about a film from way, way back -- 2000, to be exact -- called Highlander: Endgame. This was requested by a very nice individual from Scotland named Kris, who was far too kind in his e-mail to me. Thank you very much, Kris -- you are now my number one favorite person from that far off land who isn't Sean Connery. (Number two would be Karen Gillan, and were she to request a movie rambling from me, well, I'm sorry Kris, but that would knock you down to the second slot because CHICKS OVER DICKS, BRO.)

Endgame is the fourth installment of the Highlander films, and if by some small chance you are unfamiliar with this series, then I'll just give you the quick synopsis:

Highlander is about one film that should've stayed as one film, but for some reason they made five films, a TV series, an animated series, various DVD/Blu-ray releases, a video game, and I'm sure comic books and cereals figure into it as well.

I'm being unfair. It's about these people who are immortal and can only die by decapitation and they're all gathering together to kill each other with swords because There Can Be Only One to win The Prize. Why am I explaining this? If you're not familiar with Highlander, that's what Wikipedia is for. OK, fuck this -- you know what, I'll be honest, I'm gonna take the snark mask off and confess to you that if you were to ask 11-Year-Old Me what my favorite movie was, I'd answer "HIGHLANDER!!!" and then you'd ask me to stop shouting.

Yeah man, for a while I was a fuckin' fiend for that flashy film and its followups. It was my intro to Christophe(r) Muthafuckin' Lambert and I've been a fan of that oddly-accented gentleman ever since. No -- wait -- I'm lying, but it's an unintentional lie. My intro to Lambert was Highlander II: The Quickening. For real. No lie. I saw the fuckin' sequel first.

See, my cable provider was having a special 99-cent pay-per-view weekend and my dad was like "Son, I've made peace with the fact that you'll never play a sport or lift a weight or kiss a girl because you're all about the movies, so here's twenty bucks -- buy some blank tapes, order up all the movies this bill will get ya and record them, that way we have some movies for you to watch while I get drunk in order to kill the pain of having a fairy for a son!" and so I did, and The Quickening was among those films. It interested me enough to search out the first film, which proceeded to blow my mind on account of lopped off heads, lightning, and Queen. I watched both films many times, and I even watched the first couple seasons of the television show, I was so into it. I loved me some fuckin' Highlander -- even if the timeline and continuity of the whole franchise became more and more confusing over time.

Let's see -- Part Two takes place in the future and the Immortals are aliens, Part Three goes back to the present day and more or less pretends Part Two never happened, then a television series followed that appeared to take place in the same universe of Parts One and Three, then alternate cuts of all three films were released that changed stuff again. It's a mess. All I know is that I eventually lost interest in all things Highlander as soon as the end credits began to roll for 
Highlander III: The Final Dimension aka Highlander III: The Sorcerer aka Highlander III: The Magician aka Highlander III: The Pajama Jam aka PICK A FUCKING TITLE AND STAY WITH IT FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.

As for the previous films and the series, it makes more sense to see each one taking place in alternate universes, like some JJ Abrams' Star Trek craziness. For example: In the prime universe, the main character Connor MacLeod becomes the last Immortal standing and is awarded the "prize" of mortality and full knowledge of the universe or something, and he's going to use this to help the world come together and buy the world a Coke and kumbaya no more wars no more pollution all the babies all the kitties all the doggies what's an Israel? what's a Palestine? imagine there's no countries it isn't hard to do we're all just humans super happy time I don't know. Also, he's no longer shooting blanks (immortality giveth and taketh away), so he can have kids now.

But in the Endgame universe, Connor is just but one of the many Immortals still around for this Gathering and he's sick of all this shit, because, really man, really -- being immortal fucking sucks a dick. In the first Highlander, there's a pretty sad sequence where Connor is living life with his wife Heather, watching her grow old and eventually die, because that's the endgame of Love.

Endgame is almost like a feature-length version of that sequence. Connor MacLeod is so fuckin' beat by life and loss and guilt and death and the fact that his fellow immortal/kinda-relative Duncan just asked for ketchup on a hot dog, he ends up seeking sanctuary at a place called Sanctuary, where Immortals voluntarily put themselves into sort-of-comas in order to sit out life without having to take part in the Gathering. Sanctuary is run by The Watchers, a worldwide network of mortals who keep tabs on the Immortals, and might have some shady motives of their own (you think?).

He gets about ten good years of nothing before something comes blasting through his door in the form of a multi-racial gang of Immortals in ridiculous outfits, because the bad guys in Highlander always wear ridiculous outfits. One of these dudes is played by my man, Donnie Yen; he's here long enough to kick some ass in his usual awesome way but not long enough to satisfy my awesome ass-kicking quota. Another one is played by rap dude Damon Dash, who is barely in this but he does have a funny part where his decapitated head manages to stay alive long enough to give a OMG I Can't Believe He Fuckin' Did That Shit! face. (You had 14 years to see this fucking movie, and even then you weren't going to see it anyway.)

They are led by an Immortal named Jacob Kell, played by the main bad guy from Passenger 57, Bruce Payne, but this time he's replaced his long locks with more of an early 2000s Corbin Bernsen hairstyle. Kell and Connor used to be cool with each other back in the ol' Highland days, but all it takes is a charbroiled mother to change that relationship. Kell's dad was a priest who accused Connor's mom of witchcraft and then had her burned at the the stake. Connor, of course, didn't take highly to this, so he arranged a meeting between the priest and God with the help of his trusty sword.

Now to me, that sounds like they're even: Your dad killed my mom, I killed your dad. But try telling Kell that. Nope, this smug overacting motherfucker turns out to be an Immortal himself who dedicates his neverending life to shadowing Connor, looking for any opportunities to fuck up his life -- like blowing up his adopted daughter. It doesn't help that Connor is basically enabling this jerk-off by feeling genuinely guilty about this and everything else, leading his own pity party where the theme is "Everything Meaningful In My Life Gets Destroyed Because Of Me".

I couldn't stand this motherfucker Kell, killing everything and being OK with it because Boo-hoo, you killed my stupid asshole priest father. No excuse for that shit, son. Among his many crimes, Kell is always wearing these boots with crosses on the back, and it would make for a decent drinking game if you took a shot every time the film cut to a close-up of said crosses. Like, if you went with a good tequila, you'd get nice and properly fucked up halfway through your viewing. Later in the film, Duncan looks this guy up on the Internet Immortal Database and finds out that Kell has killed way more Immortals than him and Connor put together, making him a bona-fide scary force to reckon with.

As far as bad guys in the Highlander film universe go, he's nowhere near as fun as Clancy Brown, Michael Ironside, or Mario Van Peebles (all playing variations of the same theme), but at least his character has a little bit more running his engine than "I'M EVIL AND I LOVE IT". He does share with his fellow baddies a fondness for jokes and one-liners though; they are either in the Lame ("I call this decap with a twist. No sugar.") or Huh?/What? categories ("What's wrong? Don't you want to be inside me?"). Payne is clearly having fun here; his is the kind of performance given by an actor who knows that whatever he does is going to be OK with the director.

By his side is this chick named Faith, formerly named Kate, who I feel is way more interesting than Kell. I'd say she's probably my favorite character in the movie. See, she used to be married to Duncan way back when, and she was unaware that she was immortal as well. But Duncan sure as hell knew, because immortals can sense each other out. He also understood that an immortal doesn't actually become immortal until they go through a sudden violent death, otherwise I guess that offer just expires like a forgotten coupon and he or she dies of old age instead. So Duncan figures that rather than lose her that way, he decides to give her one final bang (just in case) and then stabs her dead. Poor girl, first she gets romanced into a room filled with candles (which in that time period actually makes sense), then she makes the O-face, followed by the Y-face, as in Why Oh Why Did You Just Stab Me, I Thought You Loved Me?!

Homegirl is righteously pissed at Duncan, and why not? She didn't ask for this shit, he just gave it to her. Great. Now she gets to outlive everyone else in her life, and even worse, she can't have kids. It doesn't matter that she makes lots of bank in the fashion industry, she is clearly not happy with her life, this life that can suddenly end at any time should some Immortal show up with a sword and decide to make her give head the hard way.

At least Duncan feels pretty shitty about what he did to Kate/Faith, so that gives him one more thing to talk about with fellow guilty-conscious-having immortal Connor. Man, these MacLeod boys have shit luck in creating fellow immortals (Connor killed Kell back in the old days during his burning-mom-induced rage), but if these guys were real and I happened to have the Immortal gene in me, I wouldn't mind going through a sudden violent death in exchange for a lifetime of forever. The people in my life are dying anyway and shit is way too interesting in the real world for me to eventually have to walk out of this movie, know what I mean?

The rest of the film consists of Duncan looking for Connor while trying to steer clear of Kell, his crew, Angry Kate/Faith, the Watchers, and people with good taste in hot dog condiments. We also get flashbacks to earlier times in Scotland, Italy, and I forget where else; we see Connor and Duncan living life, training with swords, foiling robberies, stabbing immortal loved ones after banging them. Characters from the television series also show up here, as do a couple of characters from the first film. And where does this film fit in with the chronology? I already told you dude, these are all alternate universes, and this story is yet another strand in God's spaghetti dish.

I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that this Highlander film -- like every other Highlander film -- has more than one version out there; the theatrical version clocked in at 87 minutes. The version I watched was the longer "producer's cut" running at about 100 minutes. There's also a rough cut workprint available, but fuck that shit, I think I made the right choice. According to the producers, the 87-minute version was the result of distributor Dimension Films laying down the law in the name of a faster pace and more showings -- personally I thought the 100-minute cut had a good pace already, but you know these fuckin' Weinstein Brothers are never happy unless they get to re-edit everything, and I do mean everything. They just re-edited me. Tomorrow, they re-edit your mom. Six editors are credited in the film, which made me think of Street Fighter and the last couple Terrence Malick joints -- but alas, unlike those multi-editor films, this one ain't no masterpiece.

This was an OK movie; it starts out strong and I liked the choice made in giving this more of a downbeat tone, which at least makes it feel different from the other Highlanders. The characters of Connor, Duncan, and Kate/Faith aren't the bounciest buskers on the block, because they've all lost something (many things, actually -- I mean they've been AROUND) and I think both the one-two punch of The Gathering and the beginning of a new millennium have weighed their souls down and boy oh boy have I made this movie sound like fun, haven't I? Shit, I don't even remember Lambert doing that awesome laugh of his here, like even he knew this was a rather frown-y affair.

It kinda goes off track quality-wise during the last third where I wasn't feeling it as much as the previous hour or so, which is weird because a pretty major event in the Highlander universe occurs late in the film and it didn't have quite the impact that I was expecting it to have. Perhaps if I remained All About Highlander like back in the day, I'd care more. Also the ending was kinda lame; I found out online that this was a new ending added to the producer's cut, whereas the theatrical cut ended in the previous (better) scene.

Despite that bullshit, I thought that this was a decent viewing for a lazy Sunday afternoon -- and maybe if I waited a few hours rather than watch it early this Sunday morning, I'd have gotten more out of it. But there's enough going on to keep things interesting, and the swordplay is cool to watch as always, plus you have the occasional Hong Kong-flavored kick-punching (thanks Donnie Yen!).

Lambert is the fuckin' man as always, Adrian Paul is actually better here than I remember him in the series (granted, I barely remember the series), and the both of them are introduced here coming out of a New York subway speaking French even though they're both supposed to be from Scotland -- because why shouldn't they? You live long enough and learn enough languages, you'd probably start switching tongues whenever just to keep from getting bored. Anyway, I'd say this is the second best/fourth worst Highlander film (the fifth film, The Source, went straight to the SyFy network and is by all accounts a terrible waste of everything).

In conclusion, Duncan MacLeod's Quickening face (or Q-face) is awesome.