Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Reel Review: BIG EYES

Tim Burton’s BIG EYES is the stylistic director’s first attempt at true cinema in a long time. It is based on a true story, and lacks his common crutches of heavy-handed CGI, cartoonish characters, and a specific genre such as sci-fi, horror, or fantasy. It is based on a premise that is so bizarre it has to be true, which gives Burton and his knack for oddity a fine stage to play in.

Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) is a struggling single-mom artist in the 1950’s; a time when women-artists are ignored and female independence is discouraged. She meets and marries Walter (Christoph Waltz), who puts his name on her work and launches a million-dollar industry.

BIG EYES is a film which takes full advantage of the time that it is set in. Covering a period of a decade or so starting in the late 1950’s, it begins as a look at male dominance over submissive females. Margaret struggles to get any of her work recognized…the very same work which flies off the shelves once a man’s name is attached. This is a situation which Walter takes full advantage of, and from that point BIG EYES shifts to Margaret’s movie-long journey of finding the courage to tell the truth. It’s a subtle battle of good vs. evil with a character in the middle.

For as simple as the premise sounds, director Tim Burton still manages to weave a complex tale exploring art, the artist, and the industry. Exactly what-is-art and who gets to say if it is or not is territory that Burton has walked through before, but here it is much better realized than ever. Around the third act an art critic proudly states “art should elevate, not pander”. It is a concept that the film embraces both sides of; Walter seeks to pander for profit while Margaret looks to create for fulfillment. It’s not only good vs. evil, but also art vs. profit.

Despite the complex themes the script that Burton is working with is very light on character. It hits all the right points but lets them hang without delving very deep. For the most part it works although not many tears will be shed for the timid and hurting Margaret, nor will there be much hatred towards Walter…who should be more despicable than he comes off (more on that in a minute…). In the meantime, Burton has lensed a beautiful looking movie with an explosion of color from the era. Characters look great in their surroundings and the 1950’s have never looked better. Danny Elfman’s score starts off strong but eventually vanishes.

Amy Adams does very well with the material she is given to work with. Again, the script is light but the character is salvaged by Adams’ own skill in going deep. Christoph Waltz plays the part of Walter as an over-the-top, flamboyant used-car-salesman with a touch of a moustache-twirling villain. He is very entertaining but the hammy performance takes away from the hatred we should feel towards the character…a character who is essentially a liar and a thief who preys upon the helpless. It’s a minor annoyance but far from a movie-breaker, and it’s unclear if Waltz or Burton is to blame. Terence Stamp appears as the critic who hates the Keane’s artwork no matter who painted it and turns in a show-stealing performance, while Jason Schwartzman, as a snooty art dealer, amounts to an extended cameo.

A climatic court-room battle to decide exactly who is the artist behind the paintings ends in bizarre fashion, but it works well because that’s exactly how it really happened. The true story behind BIG EYES is barely a blip in history, but Tim Burton has taken that blip and made it noticeable by finding the human element and sticking with it. BIG EYES is all about the power of creativity and it shows. 


Monday, December 29, 2014


“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

This month marks the 75th anniversary of GONE WITH THE WIND. 

Based on the 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Margaret Mitchell, GONE WITH THE WIND captured headlines long before the film ever hit cinemas in December of 1939. Long before social media, paparazzi, and 24-hour news channels would hunt down information on an upcoming film, the production of GONE WITH THE WIND generated an astonishing buzz around Hollywood and the country…mostly over the casting of the main characters. The amount of interest before filming began was the first mark the film would make in history. 

Set in the 19th century American-South, GONE WITH THE WIND tells the story of the fiery Scarlett O’Hara, the strong willed-daughter of a plantation owner, and her romances which would include the handsome Rhett Butler. The public’s interest would focus on these two vital characters. The now-famed “search for Scarlett” led to 1,400 women to be interviewed for the part; a staggering number which would include big names such as Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn. The role would go to the stunningly beautiful Vivien Leigh, who had only made a few films up to that point. The role of Rhett would go to fan-favorite Clark Gable, who already had two Oscar nominations for Best Actor under his belt. 

Filming would be delayed for two years while producer David O. Selznick made sure Clark Gable was able to do the film. The original screenplay went through hundreds of revisions before settling in on an acceptable length, and the original director, George Cukor, was fired shortly after filming began. He would be replaced by Victor Fleming, who had just wrapped up production on THE WIZARD OF OZ. 

The story would be told from the perspective of white southerners in which plantation slaves are portrayed as “happy”, an issue which would generate controversy from day one and would come up again 74 years later when the Oscar-winning 12 YEARS A SLAVE would hit theatres. Again, a testament to how GONE WITH THE WIND was ahead of its time. 

GONE WITH THE WIND was an enormous success that year. Even though it was the longest and most expensive film of its time (made for a cost of $3.85 million), it would win the box office that year and would eventually be the all-time champion even after adjusting for inflation. It would receive a record 13 Oscar nominations, winning eight, including Best Film, Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), director (Victor Fleming), and perhaps most importantly…Hattie McDaniel would become the very first African-American to win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress). Victor Fleming’s one-two punch of GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ would make him the only director to have two movies in the Top 10 of the American Film Institute’s (AFI) prestigious 100 Movies list. GONE WITH THE WIND was placed in the National Film Registry in 1989, and it often appears on any publication’s Best All-time lists. 


This Blogger’s first exposure to GONE WITH THE WIND came as a wee-lad, when hours were spent looking at mom’s glorious original vinyl pressing of the soundtrack: 

Leafing through the pages of that publication brought on an early awareness of the scope and magnitude of mom’s favorite movie. Years later in college, an important lesson was learned in a literature class, when the professor taught us how Margaret Mitchell began writing the novel; she started by writing the ending first. It would be an approach that this Blogger would use for the rest of his life when beginning a new project. 

And later, GONE WITH THE WIND would continue to astound this Blogger when he discovered the influence the film’s main characters and artwork had on a certain far away galaxy: 

So GONE WITH THE WIND has been in this Blogger’s life since nearly day one, and will continue to have a presence; not only as a family favorite but in deep respect for the power of film. GONE WITH THE WIND is majestic and powerful, and is intimate enough for anyone to relate to. For 75 years it has inspired and put us in awe, and will continue to do so for much longer. 

“As God is my witness, as God is my witness they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.”

Monday, December 22, 2014

Reel Facts & Opinions: Let THE INTERVIEW Be Seen

It is a dark time for the film industry. 

A travesty occurred in our beloved industry of movies last week, when Sony Pictures announced that it was delaying and/or cancelling the release of their new comedy, THE INTERVIEW. The announcement came after a series of cyber-attacks in which Sony’s internal communications were hacked and released to the world, topped off with a threat of dire consequences if the movie was released on its planned December 25th date. 

In THE INTERVIEW, two TV stars (James Franco and Seth Rogen), score an interview with the leader of North Korea, and are recruited by the CIA to assassinate him. The touchy subject matter seems to be the focus of the cyber-attack and threats against Sony Pictures, who made the announcement after many theatre-owners across the country decided not to run the film. 

Poking fun at modern-day political leaders, dictators, and enemies is nothing new. As far back as the 1940’s, film-legends Charlie Chaplin and The Three Stooges openly poked fun at Adolf Hitler while WWII was still going on, and Marvel Comics had their hero Captain America slugging the Nazi leader on the cover of their comics. Later, the HOT SHOTS! films poked fun at Saddam Hussein in the early 1990’s, and oh-by-the-way North Korea and its leader were made fun of in TEAM AMERICA in 2004. 

Why did Sony Pictures and theatre-owners panic? No one in Hollywood was afraid of Hitler in the 1940’s, as the industry was just too far out of the reach of any evil dictators. Today, the realm of cyber-attacks makes the world a very small place; where someone can obliterate a person or business or one-half of a country from 10,000 miles away with the click of a mouse. Sony Pictures may have acted on the side of caution, but this sets a very bad precedent. Now that this door is open, what is to stop anyone from issuing a threat against any movie? Blind threats should never dictate content. 

When THE INTERVIEW cancellation was made, the situation was easy to make fun of. After all, the film is a screwball comedy which looked pretty dumb and was certainly not going to compete for any Oscars. Social media was immediately filled with blockheaded comments poking fun at the situation, but little did they stop and think about how they would react if this had happened to a movie that they did want to see. Again, now that the door is open…all movies are at risk. 

Movies are based on stories, and not all of those stories are meant to be taken so seriously. If the mission of every movie is to inspire some sort of thought or conversation, then THE INTERVIEW has already done its job. Let the world decide if the film is worth all of the fuss; not the ones doing the blind threats. 

What say you? 

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Peter Jackson’s final loving adaptation of the many writings of famed author JRR Tolkien is a film which serves many purposes. It serves as the capstone to THE HOBBIT trilogy, and with its events taking place before THE LORD OF THE RINGS, also serves as a set-up piece. But first and foremost, it has to take care of its own business as a movie. 

After unleashing the wrath of the evil dragon Smaug on the people of Laketown, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), finds himself in the middle of a large-scale dispute over the riches of the mountain; a dispute which leads to war between five different races in Middle-Earth. 

The third and final chapter of this fantasy trilogy of films gets down to business in a hurry. After all, when last we left our heroes, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) was held captive by a rising evil, the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) was on his way to deep-fry the city of Laketown, and the dwarven leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) was slowly becoming obsessed with the hordes of treasure under the Lonely Mountain…all of this with the homely hobbit, Bilbo, trying to make sense of it all. Director Peter Jackson takes every one of these plotlines, and many others, and weaves a seamless tale which is always on the move and marches towards an endgame at all times.

THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is clearly a finale piece, but still has time to be its own film. Jackson eventually lets his film evolve into a morality tale about the pitfalls of greed. As Thorin delves deeply into an intoxicating madness over his treasure, Bilbo is given his biggest burden of his cinematic career; to act as intervention to Thorin who would sacrifice the lives of all to protect his wealth. The dynamic between Bilbo and Thorin runs deep; two tough friends who have great respect for each other but stand firmly on the opposite side of greed and want for riches, and this gives ARMIES a personality that had not been seen in Jackson’s five previous Middle-Earth films.

ARMIES is ultimately a war film as the races of Middle-Earth stake a claim to Thorin’s treasure. Jackson spends a lot of time maneuvering the pieces on the chess board while working towards the eventual final battle, and this gives him the opportunity to explore characters and generate some good emotional moments. Once the battle does begin, Jackson again stakes a claim as the master of the war-film genre. The large-scale battles, seamlessly generated with a combination of CGI and practical model-making, are thrilling, fun, and easy to follow as flesh and blood meets iron and hurtled stone. Some excellent stunt-work is done on the ground with the non-CGI characters, and the fine attention to detail on the weaponry is on full display.

Jackson however can’t help himself in some places. A few action sequences come off as cartoony and would feel more at home in a Bugs Bunny adventure. Fun to watch, sure…but cinematically silly. Howard Shore’s score is a disappointment for the second straight film, and the goddamn 3D has its moments but overall dulls the vibrancy of the picture.

Middle-Earth or Tolkien himself couldn’t ask for a finer collection of actors. Martin Freeman is fantastic again as Bilbo, meeting the tough physical and emotional challenges head-on. His gentleness is an excellent contrast to the thunder of Richard Armitage’s Thorin, who basically owns the movie. Ian McKellen is brilliant again as Gandalf, even though his character seems to only provide exposition for the audience. The rest of the cast is brilliant and effective throughout.

The many plotlines Jackson had been playing with across three films, which felt like extra padding, do come to a full resolution and justify their existence. At a brisk 144 minutes, ARMIES is the shortest out of all the Middle-Earth movies, and even though Jackson does an excellent job setting up events for THE LORD OF THE RINGS, a few loose threads established in this film remain untied. It’s likely this will get resolved in the eventual Extended Edition, but in the meantime it’s a minor annoyance. The last 20 minutes makes it all worthwhile as the film offers a strong wrap to its own business of Bilbo and acts as a perfect seamless transition to THE LORD OF THE RINGS. ARMIES then goes for a touching emotional sendoff to Middle-Earth, and is much in the spirit of JRR Tolkien…who always wrote with sweet melancholy concerning all the good things which must eventually pass from this world. THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is the perfect bittersweet good-bye to Middle-Earth.


Monday, December 15, 2014

A Reel Review: WILD

In 1994, a 22-year old woman named Cheryl Strayed hiked over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail on her own. Her experiences on that lonely trail, and why she took on such a journey eventually turned into a best-selling book; a book which has now seen the big-screen in the form of Jean-Marc Vallee’s WILD. 

After the death of her mother and painful divorce, Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon), an in-experienced hiker, decides to hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Coast Trail all by herself. 

WILD literally starts off right in the middle of the desert, with a young and pretty and diminutive woman struggling through the desert with a backpack twice her size and probably twice her weight. Why this woman is there and how she got there is exactly the hook of WILD. Through a series of elongated flashbacks, not unlike THE GODFATHER PART 2, the life of this woman, Cheryl, is unfolded gently yet steadily. The extended flashbacks are seamless and transition smoothly and nearly un-noticeably and often run parallel to Cheryl’s lonely and difficult trudge through the desert wilderness. 

Director Jean-Marc Vallee, who in 2013 explored the human condition going up against impossible odds from the male perspective in the Oscar-darling DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, once again ventures into the psyche of the human being, but this time from the more gentle feminine side. Where his previous effort was aggressive and blunt in its male-dominated approach, WILD is all about the feminist side and presents its story, problems, and narrative in a gentle perspective that keeps the film moving and interesting. Vallee works with multiple layers of storytelling in bringing Cheryl’s past experiences into the present by digging into literature and pop-music from generations past; coupled with stunning cinematography of the California desert landscape…WILD is a dense, non-linear story which keeps the mind and the soul engaged. 

It’s worth mentioning that WILD stumbles around the (ahem) wilderness a little. The structure gets a little tedious and redundant; Cheryl hikes along, encounters a mishap, meets a fellow hiker, makes a friend, goes back on the trail…rinse and repeat. It’s repetitive and you can nearly count the beats before the same thing happens again. It’s probably a case of sticking too close to the source material, and you may find yourself waiting for something huge to happen to shake things up. Another point worth looking at is that every random male Cheryl encounters on the trail is painted as, or set up to be a predator or some sort of threat. This could point towards Cheryl’s distrust of men (the character is an admitted feminist), and likely an important point in the book, but for a movie that is already very strong with its main character and storytelling, it feels like an un-necessary ambiguous message and could be off-putting.

At the center of it all is the outstanding, heart-wrenching, mind-blowing performance by Reese Witherspoon, who goes through the tough physical and emotional work to create a hero that you cannot help to root for despite her flaws. Witherspoon is funny and sad and the most human character to hike that lonely trail on film and it is a true triumph of her career. The supporting cast which includes Laura Dern (as Cheryl’s mom), Gaby Hoffman, Kevin Rankin, and Thomas Sadoski are all excellent. 

The finale doesn’t go for any sort of bombastic wrap with a character climbing an over-dramatic mountain or running away from any sort of avalanche or flood, but instead spends its time getting into the heart and soul of the character one last time; making for a satisfying and proper end for Cheryl’s journey. WILD spends 90% of its time with one single person, and it never fails to explore every inch of that person’s heart and soul.