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

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Gangster Squad


City of angels.

City of angels.

(2013) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Pena, Nick Nolte, Jack McGee, John Aylward, Jon Polito, Mireille Enos, Austin Abrams, Lucy Davenport . Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Power is something most people covet. Power means control over your own life. For most of us, our desire for power ends there but for others that’s just not enough. They want control over every life, absolute power. Absolute power, as they say, corrupts absolutely.

In postwar Los Angeles, corruption is rampant. The police and politicians are in the pocket of organized crime and in L.A. that means Mickey Cohen (Penn). An ex-boxer and bodyguard from Brooklyn, he has made his way up through the ranks of the Meyer Lansky gang and has been sent West where he has achieved absolute power over the criminal underworld.

Chief Parker (Nolte) realizes that he has lost control of his city and that there is little he can do to regain it. Legal remedies have proven ineffective as he has the corrupt Judge Carter (Aylward) under his thumb, along with a surfeit of politicians and police both in Los Angeles and neighboring Burbank. Parker realizes the only way to deal with Cohen is to go outside the law.

To that end he enlists the help of Sgt. John O’Mara (Brolin), a war hero whose wife (Enos) is very, very pregnant. O’Mara isn’t afraid to stand up to Cohen and knows how to wage guerilla warfare. O’Mara can’t do it alone though so he brings aboard Coleman Harris (Mackie), the so-called Sheriff of Central Avenue who keeps the peace in the largely African-American section of L.A. Harris, who has watched the influx of heroin destroy his community. He jumps at the chance to do something about it at the source.

He also brings in quick draw Max Kennard (Patrick), an old-style gunfighter with an anachronistic moustache and an Old West attitude, and Kennard’s partner Navidad Ramirez (Pena) who idolizes Kennard and wants to make a difference. He also brings in tech whiz (for the era) Conway Keeler (Ribisi) who is the best at tapping wires on the Force.

Finally there’s Jerry Wooters (Gosling), a crack detective who like O’Mara was a hero during the war. Now he’s just trying to keep his head down and stay out of the way of the freight train that is Cohen. Of course, if you’re going to do that you probably shouldn’t fall in love with his girl, who is the beautiful redhead Grace Faraday (Stone) who is ostensibly his etiquette instructor. We all know what she really is though.

Assassinating Cohen won’t do the trick as someone who could well be worse would just rise up and replace him. His whole organization must be smashed to pieces, beyond repair. The Gangster Squad must operate under the radar and in the shadows. Should Cohen find out who they are, not only their lives but the lives of everyone they care about will be in grave danger.

If this sounds very much like The Untouchables, well the similarities are unmistakable. This isn’t the same movie mind you – it lacks the epic scope of the Brian de Palma classic, but it’s cut from the same cloth. However, that cloth has faded and grown a little ratty over the years so it’s not quite the same fit.

Then again, Gangster Squad doesn’t have David Mamet writing the script. Not that Will Beall is a bad writer – he isn’t – but he’s not quite at that level, y’know? And this isn’t one of his better works; the script is long on action and short on sense. Quite frankly, the detectives in the Gangster Squad should have been killed many times over. It’s a case of Hollywood baddie bad aim syndrome, and brainless thug disease.

What that winds up doing is wasting another superlative performance by Sean Penn. He radiates menace in the same way as a pit bull does. He can be genial and charming one moment, bloodthirsty and rabid the next. It’s certainly comparable to De Niro’s Capone in The Untouchables except more volatile. Yes, you read that right.

Brolin does okay as the hero, although he simply is eaten alive by Penn. Wisely, he doesn’t try to compete so much as support which takes a pretty generous guy considering he is ostensibly the lead character. Gosling in fact makes a better foil for Penn (although they have no scenes together). Brolin is a fine actor in his own right and with the right role can really make some magic but it doesn’t happen here. However Gosling, who has been on a real hot streak, underplays as he usually does and it makes for a good counterpoint to Penn’s theatrics.

Stone is gorgeous to look at but she doesn’t connect with Gosling quite as well as they did in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Still, she fills the role nicely and quite frankly the era suits her. In fact, the filmmakers really do capture the era nicely, recreating Slapsy Maxie’s nightclub (a favorite hangout of the real Mickey Cohen) and other Los Angeles/Hollywood landmarks of the time.

This isn’t a bad movie, not at all. It’s just not really distinctive. It certainly doesn’t reach the heights of Zombieland which Fleischer helmed back in 2009. He hasn’t really reached that level of creativity since; hopefully the sequel which is currently in the works will bring him back to that standard. Unfortunately, Gangster Squad feels more like a project done to fill the time before he can get something he really wanted to do more.

REASONS TO GO: Penn is mesmerizing. Vision of L.A. in its heyday is well-achieved.

REASONS TO STAY: Shark-jumping ending. Predictable at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of gangster-style violence and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Garden of Allah apartment complex, where Wooters lives in the movie, was a real place, a landmark in Hollywood which was famous for some of the people who lived there, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Benchley. It was well-known for the Spanish-Moorish architecture and for the fair number of actors and actresses that lived there. It was torn down in 1959 and replaced with a strip mall and a bank.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews are unspectacular.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulholland Drive

OLD TIME BOXING LOVERS: There’s a scene where Cohen is watching a film of one of his old boxing matches. Yes, that’s the real Mickey Cohen fighting.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Flags of Our Fathers


Flags of Our Fathers

An iconic photo that has left an indelible impression on the American psyche.

(DreamWorks) Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Jesse Bradford, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Joseph Cross, George Grizzard, Harve Presnell, Len Cariou, Judith Ivey, Jon Polito, Tom McCarthy, Benjamin Walker.  Directed by Clint Eastwood

World War II was a turning point for our country, one in which we made the transition to greatness. One of the defining moments in that conflict was the Battle of Iwo Jima. Who can forget the iconic photograph of the marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi, or of John Wayne dying on its sands. Still, the battle has been given short shrift by Hollywood over the years. Director Clint Eastwood looks to rectify it with not just one, but two movies on the subject. The second, told from the Japanese point of view, is called Letters From Iwo Jima. This is the first, based on the book of the same name by James Bradley.

The movie opens with John “Doc” Bradley (Phillippe) in mid-battle, leaving his buddy Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowsky (Bell) in a neighboring foxhole to attempt to save a fallen marine; he is forced to kill a charging Japanese soldier who appears out of the night like a wraith. When he returns to his foxhole, a different man is there. Alarmed, Bradley calls for his friend, earning a sharp rebuke from the man in the foxhole (“What are you doing? You want to give them something to shoot at?”).

Then we discover this is a dream of a much older man (Grizzard) who is remembering a battle long since fought. Now in the twilight of his life, the elder Doc lives with his son James (McCarthy) who discovers his father fallen on the floor, confused and calling out for someone who he can’t seem to find.

From there, we are taken to the beach of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles to be fought in the Second World War. Executive producer Steven Spielberg, who had his own war epic in Saving Private Ryan, may have helped Eastwood stage the amphibious invasion of the tiny island. It is an awe-inspiring sight and must have looked terrifying to the 22,000 Japanese soldiers stationed on the island.

At first, the Marines advance on the beach with no resistance, but when the fight comes, it is terrible in its ferocity and carnage. Eastwood pulls no punches in showing just how terrible conditions were during the battle and just how high a price the victors paid for that victory.

Early on, the United States captures Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on the island. A group of six marines is sent up to hoist the American flag on a pole at the top of the mountain. The sight of Old Glory waving in the breeze gives quite a lift to the men below on the beach. This isn’t lost on a politician who has arrived on the island, and who determines that he wants that flag in his office.

Angered at the gall of the civilian, the company commander sends a much bigger flag up the hill with a group of Marines who had been assigned to string telephone wire to the top of the hill. Led by Sgt. Mike Strank (Pepper), corpsman Bradley (the only non-Marine on the mountain that day), Ira Hayes (Beach), Rene Gagnon (Bradford), Franklin Sousley (Cross) and Harland Block (Benjamin Walker) the men take down the smaller flag and raise the larger one. Civilian photographer Joe Rosenthal (Ned Eisenberg) happens to be there to capture the moment. Nobody thinks anything of it at the time; Rosenthal himself thinks that the picture isn’t all that good, since the faces of the men aren’t easily made out.

That moment, however, would provide a turning point. The war-weary American public aren’t aware that the country is nearly broke and in a month or two, will no longer be able to continue the fight. Bonds must be raised, and that picture has captivated the imagination of the American people. The Pentagon, realizing the worth of these Marines would be incalculable back home, pull them from the fight still raging on Iwo Jima and send them back to raise cash. By the time the summons comes through, three of them are already dead.

Although the movie is ostensibly about the battle (and it is shown in flashbacks regularly), it is actually about the men. Moreover, it is about how heroism is really the manufacture of the perceptions of the public. The Marines are puzzled that they are receiving the adoration that they do; to their viewpoint, their heroism involved sticking a flag on a pole and setting it into the earth. In point of fact, Gagnon had been employed as a runner during the battle and saw little or no actual fighting. This leads to some friction between him and Hayes, who feels a tremendous guilt over those left behind, particularly Strank who was a mentor to him and something of a role model.

They are accompanied on a war bonds fundraising tour by Bud Gerber (Slattery), a military publicist and a liaison (Hickey) whose job is to make sure the men make it from one appearance to the next. This takes its toll on the heroes, particularly Hayes who as an American Indian sees considerable prejudice leveled against him and begins to lean heavily on the crutch of alcohol, and on Gagnon who hopes to turn his notoriety to his advantage.

Yes, there are some tremendous battle scenes, some of the most graphic and disturbing I’ve seen, but Eastwood wisely concentrates his efforts on the story of the flag raisers, the effect that this unwanted fame had on them and on the brotherhood forged in the fires of war. He has a very solid cast of terrific character actors, particularly Pepper and McDonough who play commanding officers with the kind of charisma you’d expect from a combat marine in command.

Cinematographer Tom Stern keeps the focus a little bit on the soft side, which further identifies this as a period piece. Eastwood, who composed the score, uses period music and subdued guitars to enhance the mood nicely as well as set the time and place.

As a sidebar, we were fortunate enough to catch the showing we went to in the company of someone who actually survived the battle; when asked if what was onscreen was accurate, he smiled, said “Pretty much,” and walked off, no doubt lost in his own memories.

Those looking for a more detailed account on the battle should be directed to the documentary To the Shores of Iwo Jima which was produced by the War Department shortly after the battle was won, and contains contemporary footage of the actual surviving flag raisers. Those who want more of a depiction of the tremendous guilt that comes with surviving a terrible battle should see this. What I found most interesting about Flags of Our Fathers is the governmental hero manufacture that goes on even today.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrifying battle footage is offset nicely by the story of the toll that is taken on the heroic Marines. Beach gives a career-making performance as an alcoholic Native American.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Battle footage may be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Graphic battle scenes as well as some wrenching emotional scenes mark this as one best left for mommy and daddy.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The scenes on Iwo Jima were actually filmed in Iceland; Iwo Jima is considered sacred to the Japanese people and permission to film all but some establishing shots at the memorial on the Island were denied by the Japanese government.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are several on the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD. “Six Brave Men” chronicles the lives of the six real-life soldiers who raised the flag. “Looking Into the Past” uses color newsreel footage of the battle, the flag-raising and the bond drive depicted in the movie. “Words On the Page” details the writing of the original novel and translating it into a screenplay.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Choke