The Artist’s Wife


Bruce Dern at work on another masterpiece.

(2019) Drama (StrandLena Olin, Bruce Dern, Juliet Rylance, Avan Jogia, Stefanie Powers, Tonya Pinkins, Catherine Curtin, Lukas Hassel, Caryn West, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Elise Santora, Clare Louise Frost, Meadow Tien Nguy, Josh Mowery, Robert Myers, Gabriel Millman, Laura Chaneski, Peter Albrink, Alexandre Bagot, Gerardo Rodriguez, Dan Truman, Lyssa Mandel. Directed by Tom Dolby

 

Our country is aging, and as we do, we become more concerned with the problems of age – dementia being one of them. Most of us have known someone affected by it, either directly, or suffering because of a loved one affected by it. Hollywood finds this a particularly fertile ground for dramas, particularly of the Oscar-bait sort.

Richard Smythson (Dern) is one of the country’s pre-eminent artists, a man whose paintings routinely fetch six figures and whose name on the faculty alone can grant legitimacy to a college or university, but as lions go, he is feeling the chill of an oncoming winter. He is forgetful, and inspiration has fled, even as he prepares to what might very well be his final gallery show.

His second wife Claire (Olin) tries to keep things together, dealing with all the irritating issues of life which frees Richard to concentrate on his painting; as he says during an interview, “I create the art – Claire takes care of everything else.” The thing is, he means it as a compliment although most modern women probably would raise an eyebrow at that.

Claire is fully aware that her husband’s memory and talent are slipping away. She decides that she should reunite him with his daughter Angela (Rylance) and his grandson Diego (Cabot-Conyers) whom neither of them has met. In fact, Claire was ignorant of Angela’s sexual preference not to mention that her partner had recently left her for someone else.

And Angela is not just estranged from her dad, she’s really estranged from her dad. She wants nothing to do with him, no matter how long he may have left. Her life isn’t perfect, but she doesn’t need further drama that her often-cantankerous father sometimes creates. She reluctantly gets to know the persistent Claire a little better, and eventually agrees to come to their modernist house in the middle of nowhere for Christmas. But Richard being who he is, it becomes the most awkward Christmas celebration ever.

But as Richard is slowly disappearing, Claire – who was an artist herself before giving it up to be with Richard – is beginning to rediscover herself and in that rediscovery, just might find a way through the encroaching night which is falling on Richard and their life together.

The entire movie takes place in winter and cinematographer Ryan Earl Parker nicely utilizes snowy, white landscapes to great effect, reminding us that Richard is in the winter of his life. Dern, who has made a cottage industry of playing irascible old men of late, is never better, playing Richard with equal parts egotism, rage and eye-twinkling charm. Dolby doesn’t shy away from allowing Dern and Olin express the couple’s sexuality on the screen, something which Hollywood has a tendency to shy away from (except as a punch line).

But despite having Oscar nominee Dern front and center, this is not about Richard – the movie is called The Artist’s Wife, after all, not The Artist – but about Claire and Olin, a Swedish actress who has been almost criminally underrated for the most part, generates a performance that has to be one of the best of her career.

There is a consistency problem here; some of the situations feel very unlike how you’d expect the characters to react, which is puzzling because Dolby – one of the co-writers of the film – doesn’t turn away from his character’s foibles and issues. They are all fully human, but when Angela relents and brings her son and their calming babysitter Danny (Jogia) to visit, it feels forced, as if the script required a confrontation and this was the most expedient way to create one. The ending of the movie isn’t exactly what I expected, and in some ways felt like a cop-out, but it does remind us that love sometimes is about doing the hardest thing, and occasionally, the most unlikely.

There are moments that are maudlin, but Dolby largely avoids those sorts of opportunities; his own father passed away due to complications from Alzheimer’s in 2013 and certainly that experience likely played a role in the script-writing here. Those who have loved ones going through the process of memory and personality change may find this a painful watch, but those looking for some strong acting performances and a drama that doesn’t necessarily take the easiest road to the finish might well look into this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Dern is reliably captivating and Olin gives one of the best performances of her career. A portrait of love that transcends standard boundaries.
REASONS TO AVOID: Goes off the rails from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Olin initially went to university to study medicine and briefly worked as a nurse before moving into acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wife
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
We Are Many

Made in Italy


The love between father and son withstands all obstacles.

(2020) Dramedy (IFC) Liam Neeson, Micheál Richardson, Valeria Bilello, Lindsay Duncan, Yolanda Kettle, Marco Quaglia, Gian Marco Tavani, Helena Antonio, Lavinia Biagi, Gabriele Tozzi, Souad Faress, Claire Dyson, Costanza Amati, Eileen Walsh, Julian Ovenden, Chelsea Fitgerald, Deborah Vale, Flaminia Cinque. Directed by James D’Arcy

I have come to a conclusion about my film critic colleagues: they really, really hate (in general) movies that make you feel. They much prefer (again, in general) movies that make you think. There’s nothing wrong with having your thoughts provoked, mind you – but not everyone goes to the multiplex to exercise their mind, and learning isn’t always a function of thought and rationality. Sometimes, it’s a process of intuition and emotion.

London-based art gallery manager Jack Foster (Richardson) is going through a painful divorce from his wife (Kettle) whose family, unfortunately for Jack, owns the gallery. Now that the couple is Splitsville, they want to sell the building and turn a tidy profit. Jack, who has worked hard to build the gallery into something, wants to buy it. But how to come up with the cast? Well there’s the house he co-owns with his dad Robert (Neeson) in Tuscany which should be able to provide the funds Jack needs in a quick sale.

Robert was once one of those artists who were the talk of the art world, whose artwork commanded astronomical sums in auctions and sales. But after the death of his wife (Jack’s mother) in a tragic accident twenty years prior, he’s stopped painting and has opted for the life of a ladies man, hopping into bed with young women whose names he can scarcely remember, much to the disgust of his son.

The trip to Tuscany is awkward and when they arrive at the house, the decades of neglect is very much evident – a family of weasels has taken up residence and they’re not willing to give up their squatters’ rights. Drill sergeant-like realtor Kate (Duncan) has a laundry list of must-dos in order to sell the house, although the plumbing is pretty good (that matters a lot, according to Kate) and so Jack, who is much more gung-ho about selling the place than his dad, gets to fixing the place up. Robert seems to be dragging his feet, even though he wants his son to have the cash, at the same time he is having trouble letting go. Jack is having trouble letting go of his anger towards his dad, who shipped him off to school just when Jack needed support the most.

Jack finds romance with a local trattoria owner named Natalia (Bilello) who is undergoing marital troubles of her own. However even as Kate finds a couple of boorish American boobs who are willing to buy the house that they clearly could never appreciate properly, the gulf between Robert and Jack reaches a boiling point with perhaps surprising results (or perhaps not).

If the renovation of a house belonging to a beloved deceased relative in one of the loveliest places on Earth sounds like the plot to another movie, that’s because it is – remember Russell Crowe extolling the charms of Provence in A Good Year? Just as that film activated many dream vacations to France, so too this one may give you the yen to visit Florence and environs.

This couldn’t have been an easy movie for Neeson and Richardson to make. Neeson’s wife – actress Natasha Richardson – and Michael’s mother, passed away far too young in 2009. I couldn’t say if the father and son in real life mirrored the strained relations that they portray onscreen, but the pain of loss that both men surely feel hangs over the production like smog on a hot summer day. There is a scene where the two confront each other over the death of the mom/wife that is especially poignant when you realize that the two have an emotional connection to the material.

Nonetheless, both men have some truly powerful scenes together and those alone are worth the price of admission (or rental in these days of pandemic). So, too, are the lovely golden-hued shots of the Tuscan countryside that has been long a favorite of filmmakers ever since cameras were invented.

First-time writer-director D’Arcy gets few points for originality here; much of the script is predictable and while the movie hits all the right feels, there are times that it comes off as derivative and not terribly original. However, wonderful performances from the leads (and Bilello is absolutely delightful as well), some magnificent cinematography and some nice foodie moments make this a movie guaranteed to make you want to head off to Tuscany yourself – or at least indulge in a really good bowl of risotto.

REASONS TO SEE: Lovely Tuscan vistas on display. Some very good work between father and son.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very predictable and occasionally bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Neeson and Richardson are father and son in real life. This is the second time they’ve appeared in the same movie together (the first was Cold Pursuit).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 54/100, Metacritic: 45/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Good Year
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Shine Your Eyes

Velvet Buzzsaw


Things that make you go “hmmm”.

(2019) Horror Satire (Netflix) Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, John Malkovich, Billy Magnussen, Toni Collette, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Alan Mandell, Mig Macario, Nitya Vidyasagar, Sedale Threatt Jr., Keith Bogart, Sofia Toufa, Kassandra Voyagis, Mark Leslie Ford, Amy Tsang, Mark Steger, Andrea Marcovicci, Pisay Pao, Ian Alda, Valentina Gordon. Directed by Dan Gilroy

 

I have said many a time that there is a difference between art and Art and it largely depends on how seriously the artist takes him/herself. Art is pretentious and arrogant whereas art is inspiring and insightful. Director Dan Gilroy, acclaimed for his work on Nightcrawlers, knows the difference.

In this horror-laced satire about the contemporary commercial art world, he reunites with two of the stars of Nightcrawlers. Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is the self-important art critic whose words can triple the price that a painting will get, or destroy a budding artist’s career entirely. Art dealer Rhodora Haze (Russo) shares a symbiotic relationship with him. Morf, who is bisexual, has a thing for Rhodora’s assistant Josephina (Ashton).

Josephina wants more than to be someone’s coffee-fetcher and when an elderly man in her apartment building dies literally in front of her door, she discovers her chance – his apartment is filled with haunting, vaguely unsettling art work. She knows instantly that it’s the Real Deal and enters into a partnership with Rhodora to sell it, even though the man expressly wanted his art destroyed and not sold. Nevertheless, sold it is and as a number of characters in the art world – up and coming agent Jon Dondon (Sturridge), gallery curator Gretchen (Collette) who looks to make her own mark (and fortune), to name a couple – jockey for position to get a piece of the pie. Then, they start to turn up dead in horrible, gruesome ways.

The film relies heavily on smart, snappy dialogue and Gyllenhaal gives one of his best performances to date as Morf, whose evolution during the film is presaged by the homonym of his first name. In fact, the entire cast, which incidentally is a pretty nifty one, does a bang-up job with particular kudos to Dyer as one of the few sympathetic characters in the film.

The movie doesn’t go easy on the gore which is likely to delight horror fans, although they might not know what to make of the satire that makes up the first third of the movie. Regardless, this is wildly entertaining and one of the better movies under the Netflix banner.

REASONS TO SEE: Gyllenhaal is delightful. Entertaining in a smarmy way. Lampoons the artificiality and pretentiousness of the commercial art world.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit too ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and gore, as well as a surfeit of profanity, some sexuality, brief nudity and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gilroy, who also wrote the film, stated in an interview that the unusual character names were inspired by Charles Dickens
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bucket Full of Blood
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Sometimes Always Never

Randy’s Canvas


How much more New England can you get?

(2018) Romance (Vision) Adam Carbone, Michael Emery, Scout Taylor-Compton, Marycarmen Lopez, Richard Riehle, Massi Furlan, Kevin G. Schmidt, Shawn Pyfrom, John Petrella, Ramiro Tavares, Sissy O’Hara, Dick Lebeau, Michael G. Nathan, Stephen O’Neil Martin, Marilyn Baker, Ray Boutin, Christopher L. Ferreira, Sonya Joyner, Courtney Danforth. Directed by Sean Michael Beyer

 

Autism is one of those things that most of us are woefully ignorant of but sort of paint a picture in our minds that is highly inaccurate, generally. Autism doesn’t mean dumb, it doesn’t mean untalented, it doesn’t mean that those afflicted with it can’t lead meaningful lives. Autism means that those who have it process things differently. Yes, some folks with autism are not as smart as other folks with autism. Some can’t handle anything more than the most menial of jobs, although others can excel at high-paying jobs. Like all the rest of us, there are all sorts of people with autism and there are no two alike.

Randy (Carbone) has autism but he is high-functioning. He lives with his brother Henry (Emery), a garbage man in a small town near Providence, Rhode Island. Randy works as a janitor in a small art gallery in town; he likes to spend time talking art with the security guard Bob (Petrella). Randy is an artist himself and one night he forgets his portfolio (which he takes with him wherever he goes apparently) and when Bob looks through it, he realizes the kid is a major talent. Impulsively, Bob hangs one of Randy’s works in the gallery.

That wasn’t a bright idea. The owners of the gallery are furious and they fire the both of them but not before curator Maurizio D’Oro (Furlan) gets a look at Randy’s painting and comes to the conclusion that Bob did – that here was a diamond in the rough. He offers Randy a job in his gallery and an amazing opportunity – to audit an art class at the New England Institute of Technology with the famous Professor Hausdorff (Riehle).

Randy isn’t keen on the idea, although reluctantly gives in when everyone he trusts urges him to go for it. Randy is not known for taking instructions well or following them once they’re given which ends up placing him in an adversarial relationship with his professor. Making matters worse is that he’s in love with Sienna (Lopez) who is the girlfriend of Clinton (Schmidt), a smug entitled scion of the company that employs Henry. Sienna likes hanging out with Henry and Randy (although Clinton’s not at all pleased about it) but has no real romantic inclinations towards Randy. Randy’s classmate, the sunny and outgoing Cassie (Taylor-Compton) tries to help but the bottom line is that Randy is miserable and it’s affecting his art and putting in jeopardy his chance to develop his talent.

To the good: Randy is a fully drawn-out character whose autism is incidental in many ways; it’s not who he is, it’s what he has. He can be a handful to deal with but then again, so can we all. I was surprised to discover that Carbone is not autistic himself; he has all the tics and rapid hand movements down cold.

I was also surprised at Emery who I’ve not heard of but I sincerely hope that changes. He has a great deal of charismatic screen presence and could have a long career ahead of him on film. While Henry isn’t the perfect brother, his heart is in the right place and you get a good sense of that good heart here.

Speaking of heart, this film has plenty of it. You can’t help but root for it to be better. The small town New England locations give the movie a very homey feeling and as you watch you feel like you’re being wrapped in a warm blanket on a cold fall rainy day. Not every movie can make that claim.

To the not-so-good: the score which starts out lovely with a simple piano melody gets overbearing with washes of strings that come straight from a cheesy melodrama of 50 years ago. They also use too many pop-folk songs on the soundtrack to the point where I began to wonder if I was watching a movie or listening to a playlist. Simple is better, folks.

The script also gets a little bit overwrought at times, emphasizing the melodramatic elements which should have been played down. Poor Randy is suffering from his first love and we all can relate to the pain of it and I know that for some folks with autism dealing with strong emotions can be nearly impossible but it did get to the point where I felt like the movie was losing its way. Some of the scenes also end a little too abruptly; there’s not a lot of flow between scenes. A steadier hand in the editing bay might have helped.

Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad but only slightly. This is definitely more of a feel good kind of film and while there was ample room for a teaching moment or two, the filmmakers never choose to go that route and the result is a lightweight romance with a hint of comedy in which the male lead happens to have autism. While the latter is admirable, it’s not enough to make the movie stand on its own essentially. There’s certainly room for improvement but the good news is that I think that those involved with this are capable of better things. Incidentally, check out the trivial pursuit entry in case you need a really good reason to rent or buy this.

REASONS TO GO: I love the New England locations; this film has an awful lot of heart.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie gets overwrought in places and the soundtrack is intrusive (too many songs!)
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence, some partial nudity and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Proceeds from the film are going to benefit the Autism Society.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aspie Seeks Love
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Bikini Moon

Lowriders


Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

(2016) Drama (BH Tilt/Telemundo) Gabriel Chavarria, Demián Bichir, Theo Rossi, Tony Revolori, Melissa Benoist, Yvette Monreal, Eva Longoria, Montse Hernandez, Noel Gugliemi, Bryan Rubio, Cress Williams, Franck Khalfoun, Pepe Serna, Taishi Mizuno, David Fernandez Jr., Art Laboe, Damien Bray, Tiffany Gonzalez, Johanna Sol, Jamie Owen, Stacey Bender, Pandie Suicide. Directed by Ricardo de Montreuil

To outsiders, the car clubs of the predominantly Latino East Los Angeles must seem as foreign and mysterious as Shaolin temples. Those familiar with the Fast and Furious movie franchise might think they have car culture figured out, but it’s like watching an episode of Big Bang Theory and thinking you have nuclear physics figured out.

Danny Alvarez (Chavarria) is the youngest son of a Lowrider legend; Manuel Alvarez (Bichir). He basically grew up in his father’s garage and weathered the sorrow of his mom’s illness and death there. He admittedly didn’t get a whole lot of help from his dad, who was battling his own alcoholism even as his wife was dying. Manuel cleaned up his act enough to marry Gloria (Longoria) whom he met cruising; he has since fathered a daughter Isabel (Hernandez) who is preparing for her quinceañera. His big brother Francisco (Rossi) – upon whom Danny has bestowed the nickname of Ghost – is in prison after being caught and convicted of stealing auto parts to customize his own car.

Manuel has been working on a new car, a 1961 Chevy Impala that he’s named Green Poison (for the custom green fleck paint on the roof of the car) for the upcoming Elysian Car Show, one of the most prestigious of its kind. He would love to be working on it with his son Danny but the young man in question has been following a path of his own – street art. Danny is a talented and imaginative street artist where his graffiti shows up in a lot of unexpected places. His dad is worried that the illegal activity might get Danny arrested and the thought of both of his sons in the slammer is more than he can bear.

But Ghost has just gotten released from prison and he is reconnecting with his little brother in a big way. Ghost has a mad on because Manuel never visited him in prison, not once. He definitely has some Daddy issues and has gone so far as to join a rival car club that is a little bit rougher than Manuel’s old school Coasters car club. As Elysian approaches, Ghost and Manuel are on a collision course and Danny is caught in the middle. It looks for sure like a head-on is inevitable.

I have to admit, when I read the plot line for the movie in advance of seeing it I really didn’t expect much and in some ways I was correct not to. The plot is pretty hoary and has been done many times before onscreen dealing with old school dads and rebellious sons who are estranged but who reconcile their differences to achieve the impossible or at least the nearly so. Those familiar with those sorts of movies will find no surprises here.

The good news is that we really get what feels like an insider look at East L.A. Although de Montreuil is Peruvian by birth, he understands the Latin beat that drives the Eastside well. From the rhythms of speech to the thudding of loud music coming from outrageous speakers in outrageous cars, he captures the atmosphere of Baldwin Park so perfectly you can almost smell the carnitas simmering.

Bichir is one of the best actors working today; he has the gravitas of a young Edward James Olmos with a fatherly sensibility of a Tom Bosley. He anchors this movie in ways that the younger cast members can’t; he gives Manuel dignity, even when Manuel is frankly being a dick. He also gives him a certain amount of uncertainty; like all fathers, Manuel has no idea how to react to things outside of his experience. He just plows along doing the best he can which isn’t always good enough.

Rossi and Chavarria both exhibit a great deal of star power and both have virtually unlimited potential. In this day and age, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of matinee idol love for non-white actors and so that might stand in their way somewhat but they both deserve to be A-listers. Were I a Hollywood producer I’d have absolute confidence in either one of them to carry my picture.

The main problem here is that writers Elgin James and Cheo Hodari Coker have spent nearly all of their character depth on the men. The women in this film are of little consequence, either ornaments or child nurturers. While Gloria is characterized as someone who knows her way around an engine, she is given little chance to show it. Even Lorelei (Benoist) who is Danny’s photographer girlfriend is mainly just a hipster caricature. She essentially disappears from the film about 2/3 of the way through and other than a brief moment at the very end is never to be seen again. Maybe Supergirl can find her.

The ending is pretty rote but satisfying enough for me to give the movie a strong recommendation. I think De Montreuil is an up-and-coming talent to be reckoned with, considering he did so much with so little. If he can make a superior movie out of what is essentially a cliché script, imagine what he could do with something more substantial.

REASONS TO GO: We get an insight into East L.A. car culture and the amazing vehicles therein. The ending, although predictable, was satisfying. De Montreuil shows a great deal of promise.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is somewhat passé. I wish that the female characters had gotten a bit more depth to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence, some sensuality and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lily Collins was initially cast but had to drop out due to scheduling difficulties. Melissa Benoist eventually took her part.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Better Life
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Life

Big Eyes


Amy Adams doesn't want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

Amy Adams doesn’t want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Jon Polito, Elizabeth Fantone, James Saito, Guido Furlani, Delaney Raye, Madeline Arthur, Emily Bruhn, Alan MacFarlane, Tony Alcantar, Jaden Alexander, Andrew Airlie, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Stephanie Bennett, Andrea Bucko. Directed by Tim Burton

Art is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. The big-eyed waifs painted by Keane were, in the 1950s and 1960s, highly sought-after. Prints and posters hung in many homes and the originals were highly sought-after by collectors. Walter Keane was one of the first to commercialize art in many ways, leading the way for guys like Andy Warhol and Robert Wyland. There are those who would sniff that Keane’s vision was more kitsch than art and doesn’t hold up over the years. But Keane held a secret much deeper than that.

Margaret Ulbrich (Adams) has fled an abusive marriage, taking her daughter Jane (Raye) to San Francisco where her friend DeeAnn (Ritter) is overjoyed to see her out on her own. Margaret loves to paint but she’s forced to take a mundane job to support her daughter, but still continues to paint and sells her art in the park on weekends. There she meets Walter Keane (Waltz), a charming and outgoing man who claims he once studied to paint in Paris. He’s a born salesman and at the moment he’s selling himself. Margaret, who knows that a divorcee with a daughter isn’t going to be attracting a lot of romantic attention, marries Walter despite DeeAnn’s misgivings.

Soon Margaret starts painting a series of sad children with oversized eyes. Walter is painting his landscapes and both are not really selling much of anything. Walter manages to wrangle Enrico Banducci (Polito), the owner of one of the city’s iconic jazz clubs, to hang some of the artwork in the club where Walter can ostensibly sell it, but the place the art gets hung – a corridor leading to the bathrooms – isn’t exactly the place where people look for artwork. However after a staged row gets more customers into the club to see the fireworks between Banducci and Walter some attention gets paid to the art.

But not Walter’s art – Margaret’s. Soon her artwork begins selling like hotcakes and in a moment of perhaps panic but more likely pride, Walter claims that he is the artist that painted the waifs. Soon, there is huge demand for these paintings and Walter opens up a gallery. When people start stealing posters and postcards, he begins charging for them. Before long, the waifs are an international phenomenon.

For Margaret, success is bittersweet. The money is nice and the recognition is terrific, but nobody is recognizing her. It’s Walter reaping the success, Walter getting the recognition. Even a now-grown Jane (Arthur) recognizes that her mother is being screwed. Walter’s increasingly bizarre behavior, brought on by drinking, becomes too much. Margaret leaves and takes Jane with her to Hawaii, but Walter needs her paintings to fuel his income. The arrangement seems to work but it becomes clear that keeping the secret is a terrible burden for Margaret. When the truth comes out, where will the chips end up?

Burton has always been the kind of director whose films you can tell instantly are his, even if you don’t know what you’re seeing. He outdoes himself here – not so much with the semi-Gothic look of some of his movies, not even in his fascination with kitsch which is certainly present here, but in his use of color. Every shot is like a painting, with the colors melding together in not only the set design and the costumes but even down to the lighting. Burton’s eye is exquisite.

The story is based on Margaret’s memoirs and thus Walter is given short shrift in many ways. The point of view is strictly Margaret’s and while some of Walter’s family have complained that the film portrayed him as a talentless hack and even that he taught Margaret how to draw the waifs (which he was unable to reproduce in court during the libel trial that is depicted at the end of this film), all I can say is that you don’t go to the movies to seek the truth, merely an aspect of it, a perspective on it. And who’s to say what the truth is? There’s Margaret’s story, Walter’s story and somewhere in between is the reality of what actually happened.

Adams is one of my favorite actresses and she gives a solid though unspectacular performance as Margaret. Margaret is the mousy submissive 50s housewife through much of the movie and that can impede a performance if one is constantly looking down at the floor miserably, but Adams does eventually give Margaret some spunk which shows through in different often unsettling ways. Waltz, who I almost always enjoy, is a bit miscast here; while he has the charisma and charm to pull that aspect of Walter off, sometimes he’s so overpowering that the movie tilts a bit in the wrong direction. Less would have been more in this case. Also, both have trouble maintaining their accents as Waltz’ Austrian accent sometimes slips out and Adams’ Tennessee accent sometimes slips away. A bit more consistency would have been nice.

Like Ed Wood (whose writers co-wrote this film), Burton shows an unusual sympathy for those outside the system, those relegated to freak show status. The Keanes operated outside the normal boundaries of the art world back then, as represented by a snooty art critic (Stamp) and a snobby gallery owner (Schwartzman) and more or less clawed their way to the top. There is no doubt that Walter was an excellent promoter and while his actions may have been reprehensible, once in awhile you get a glimpse of the insecurities within that may well have fueled his behavior and Big Eyes succeeds very well there. This isn’t Burton’s best work, but it is his best in quite awhile.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously shot. Champions the outsider once again. Captures the kitsch of the era nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally an accent drops. Waltz is unusually out-of-step.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of harsh language and the themes can be pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Margaret Keane can be seen reading a book on a park bench in the scene when Walter and Margaret are painting in front of the Palace of Fine Arts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ed Wood
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Exodus: Gods and Kings

Midnight Meat Train


Midnight Meat Train

Bradley Cooper demonstrates the wrong way to get on a subway train.

(2008) Horror (Lionsgate) Bradley Cooper, Brooke Shields, Vinnie Jones, Leslie Bibb, Roger Bart, Peter Jacobson, Barbara Eve Harris, Ted Raimi, Stephanie Mace, Tony Curran, NorA, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Dan Callahan. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura

 

Big cities hide their secrets zealously. The bigger the city, the more difficult it can be to pry those secrets loose. In a city the size of New York City, it can be well-nigh impossible – and quite deadly to those who even try.

Leon (Cooper) is a photographer who specializes in crime scenes and fairly dark subjects. His girlfriend Maya (Bibb) through her friend Jurgis (Bart) gets Leon an audience with well-known art dealer Susan Hoff (Shields). She likes some of his work but needs Leon to go deeper – get at the truth. Go somewhere dangerous.

And what could be more dangerous than the New York subway after midnight? Certainly model Erika Sakaki (NorA) finds this out first-hand when a group of young toughs surround her, threatening to sexually assault her. Only the timely intervention of Leon pointing out that their whole tete-a-tete is being caught on security camera saves her. She shows her gratitude by allowing him to take a few pictures of her, then plants a kiss on him before getting on her train and heading off into the night.

Except that she never gets off that train. Leon finds out a few days later that she has turned up missing and Leon realizes he may well have been the last person to see her alive. He takes his pictures to the police who are indifferent, so he decides to investigate on his own. While checking out the subway station he sees a hulking, well-dressed man who appeared in his last photo of the missing girl – he was on board the same train as she was when she disappeared. Figuring this can’t be a coincidence, he begins to follow the man.

The man, who we later find out is known as Mahogany (Jones), shows up at a butcher’s shop. He is apparently mute (until the very end of the film when he speaks the only three words of dialogue he has in the movie) and imposing. However, Leon proves to be an inept investigator in one sense; Mahogany soon realizes he’s being stalked. However, Leon does manage to discover that Mahogany is brutally murdering people on the late night trains with a misshapen butcher’s hammer, and then hanging them on portable meat hooks while the subway train goes off on a silent siding.

Now the cat and mouse game gets deadly as both Maya and Jurgis get sucked into Leon’s obsession. Still, there’s an even more terrible secret lurking on that forgotten side track; one which only one of them will walk away from.

This is based on a short story by horror master Clive Barker – in fact it is the very first story in the first volume of his 8-book Books of Blood series. The movie version was announced with great fanfare in 2007 and 2008 as horror fans anticipated what the trailers promised was a taut, mesmerizing gorefest. However, a regime change at Lionsgate saw the film thrown into a series of delaying actions before finally getting about 100 screens, all in dollar theaters rather than in first-run houses before moving quickly to home video.

Horror fans (and Barker) howled in protest at the mistreatment of the film. They have a pretty good case – as horror movies go, this is better than average. It is far from perfect – for one thing, this would have made a pretty good hour-long short on some cable anthology series but the overall story doesn’t really support a full-length feature. It feels sometimes stretched out a bit too thin, particularly the portions where Maya and Jurgis are doing their own investigating.

In addition, Cooper who would find stardom with The Hangover just a year later, was miscast here. He is stiff and somewhat flat; I don’t get the sense that he ever really got a handle on the part. My take is that while Kitamura speaks pretty good English, he might not have necessarily been able to communicate what he wanted precisely to Cooper but that’s just conjecture. It does bring the film down a notch.

Some of the kills use obvious CGI for the blood and gore. Remember the good old days when all that was done with practical effects, make-up and puppets? Some of the CGI gore looks it and when you notice it, it takes you  right out of the environment of the film and it’s much like being awakened from a dream by someone throwing a bucket full of cold water into your face.

That said, there is plenty to like about the film as well. Kitamura is a more than capable director. He takes Barker’s story and translates it beautifully to the screen, combining elements of his own background in J-horror along with Dario Argento-esque Italian horror and throws in Big Apple ‘tude on top of it all, from the haughty snobbery of Shield’s West Village art cognoscenti, the indifference of the cops and media to a series of disappearances going on right under their noses and the cocksure tough guys haunting the streets and subways after dark. It’s a heady mix.

So yes this is flawed but overall there’s much more right with it than not. For one thing, Jones makes an intimidating villain, such a presence here that you wonder if he hasn’t been underutilized in his other films. Bibb, who like Cooper has mostly done comedies to this point, makes a fine scream queen and gets her sexy on in a couple of scenes here. This was one that the studio messed up on – it deserved more than a token contractual obligation release and might have made a good deal more coin than it did had the new regime shown a little more faith in the product but sadly, it seems like the Lionsgate brass has turned their back on the horror genre that essentially built the studio (the Saw and Tyler Perry franchises the twin pedestals that the studio was built on) which makes it all the more ironic that they had gotten into such financial difficulties that they had to merge with Summit earlier this year. Sometimes poetic justice just…happens.

WHY RENT THIS: Combines J-horror with giallo and meets it in the middle with a New York attitude. Jones is at his brooding best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cooper is unconvincing as the horror hero. Over-reliance on CGI gore does occasionally jolt one violently out of the mood.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence and gore, quite a bit in fact; nudity (most of it grisly), some sex and of course plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of Clive Barker’s paintings are seen hanging in Susan Hoff’s art gallery.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on author Clive Barker and actor Vinnie Jones.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie might have made money but then again it might not have.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW:High Fidelity

Beginners


Beginners

Oh look..."The Sound of Music." Lovely, just lovely.

(2011) Drama (Focus) Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos, China Shavers, Melissa Tang, Amanda Payton, Luke Diliberto, Lou Taylor Pucci. Directed by Mike Mills

Relationships are more complicated than nuclear physics. There are no hard and fast rules that govern them and just when you think you have them figured out, the rules change. In love, as in life, we all muddle through as best we can and come to the realization that there are no experts – we are all, in reality, just beginners.

Oliver (McGregor) is very sad. It’s 2003 and his father Hal (Plummer) has passed away from cancer recently. Oliver’s relationship with dear old Dad is extremely complicated. Six months after his mom Georgia (Keller) died, Hal came out of the closet. It turns out that Hal had realized he was gay for the length of the marriage, more than 30 years.

As we flash back to young Oliver (Boos), we see with startling clarity that Georgia was in a marriage that was without passion, a lonely institution that left her sad and bitter, a non-conformist in all other respects but apparently unable to divorce her husband when she was clearly unhappy.

Oliver himself has been unable to commit to a relationship, ostensibly because he didn’t want to end up like his parents, lonely in their relationship. He meets Anna (Laurent), a French actress living in New York shooting a film in L.A. Like Oliver, she’s damaged goods but she might well be the love of his life.

As he tries to navigate his way through this relationship and find a way at last to commit rather than creating a reason not to, he flashes back to the last years of his father’s life, when he embraced the gay community – indeed, embraced life – and found happiness at long last with Andy (a nearly unrecognizable Visnjic). When his dad got ill and Oliver became his caretaker, the two men finally connected in ways they never had been able to when Oliver was growing up. His father had found joy late in life; would Oliver find it too, or would he turn it away as he always had?

Mills based much of this on his own experiences with his dad, reportedly. For that reason, the relationships ring true. They are very imperfect and fraught with land mines and machine gun nests. Nobody in this movie gets out unscathed, which is as it should be because that’s how life and relationships are.

Mills cast the movie brilliantly. McGregor is an immensely likable actor who here has to play an emotionally closed off man who desperately wants more than it looks like he’s going to get. He has a constantly befuddled expression on his face, with an occasional detour to sad. Oliver is never so alive as when he’s with Anna, and McGregor lights up around her as a man in love must do. He also gets the single most powerful moment in the film when one of his father’s friends gently wakes him to tell him his father is gone. The grief is so raw, so close to the surface that I wept, relating as a son who lost his father too young.

Plummer as that father has a touch of pixie in him, a kind of rakish twinkle in his eye that is immensely appealing. Hal discovers life and revels in everything about it. He awakens his son to ask him about a style of music he heard in a night club that he’s unfamiliar with. When his son tells him that it’s called House Music, Hal writes it down dutifully as an old man who can’t trust his memory would. Little touches like that make characters live and breathe.

Anna is lustrous and free-spirited and Laurent captures both the quirky qualities that make her endearing as well as the self-doubts and demons that make her fragile. It is a nuanced performance that those who remember her from Inglourious Basterds won’t be surprised by. Visnjic, once the hunk in “E.R.” is less brooding and hunky, but still crazy handsome as Andy, a man plagued with the suspicion that everyone hates him because he’s gay.

Some may shy away from the movie because of Hal’s sexuality; they do themselves a disservice. This is not a story about gay people; it’s a story about people. People who are imperfect, who make terrible choices and also wonderful choices – people who leave adorable Jack Russell terriers behind that communicate in subtitles. These are flawed people but flawed in the way real people are flawed. Now, I will grant you that at times I had problems figuring out the storyline because they aren’t all told sequentially which can make you scratch your head trying to figure out where you are in the scheme of things, movie-wise. Still, I found myself liking this movie and being deeply affected by it long after I left the theater. For someone who sees as many movies as I do, that’s a precious gift indeed.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic depiction of a man coming to terms not only with the loss of his father but with his own inadequacies. Great performances from McGregor, Laurent and Plummer.

REASONS TO STAY: Disjointed storytelling leaps back and forth from Dad’s story to young Oliver to modern Oliver.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of bad language and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Plummer and McGregor have both played Iago in separate stage productions of Othello.

HOME OR THEATER: This is an intimate drama befitting an intimate setting.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: An Inconvenient Truth