Friday, December 19, 2014

Talking to Tim Burton

If style is substance, Tim Burton is a very substantial director indeed. From his first feature, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Burton visually inventive style has done much of the work of gothacizing his humanist narratives, often through comically exaggerated costumes and sets, matter-of-fact dollops of surrealism, and wide-eyed, well-meaning misfit protagonists. Burton's latest, Big Eyes, is about another alienated innocent marooned in a middle America that's nowhere near as calm and comfortable as it's pretending to be. But in many other ways, the film feels strangely un-Burtonesque. Margaret Keane, its main character, painted the lookalike portraits of sad children with enormous eyes that spread like kudzu throughout the U.S. in the 1950s and '60s. But the more popular her work became, the more isolated she felt, forced as she was to keep a secret that had been cooked up by her husband, who wanted the world to think he was the artist behind her "big eyes" paintings. I spoke with Burton last week about what Keane's story has to say about the suburban American dream of the Cold War era and why he opted for a more subdued visual approach in telling her story.

I guess you must like Margaret Keane's paintings, since you own a couple of them.

Well, yeah. But "like" is a funny word. I grew up with them.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Big Eyes

Director Tim Burton and the story of Margaret and Walter Keane, a tale of extreme weirdness hidden under the manicured surface of two middle-class American lives, were made for each other. There’s even something Burtonesque about the Keane paintings that give the film its title, portraits of children with sad, deadpan faces and eyes so huge and flat that one of the film’s characters compares them to “big stale jellybeans.” After all, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice or Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands as Keane kids in Goth getups. But this “based on true events” tale is a Burton film without much Burton, its costumes, settings and sometimes on-the-nose dialogue all disappointingly straightforward.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Best Movies and Performances of 2014

Happy happy, merry merry, and welcome to list time.

First, here's Slant Magazine's 25 Best Films of 2014 list, which was compiled from the lists contributed by about 20 of us regular Slant contributors.

Next, Slant's 20 Best Film Performances of 2014, which I also contributed to.

And here's my personal Top 10 list for 2014, plus 10 runners-up.

1. Ida
2. Norte, the End of History
3. Two Days, One Night
4. Boyhood
5. Starred Up
6. A Summer's Tale
7. Big Men
8. The Babadook
9. Papirosen
10. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear
Honorable Mention: CitizenfourDear White PeopleHorses of GodLeviathanListen Up PhilipLockeMr. TurnerNightcrawlerThe Strange Little Cat and We Are the Best!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

By submitting nearly everything he creates for public approval, regardless of whether it's substantial enough to hold up to that kind of scrutiny, James Franco does no favors to not-ready-for-prime-time works like The Color of Time. The multihyphenate gathered students he had taught at New York University's film school to write and direct this fictional imagining of the life of poet C.K. Williams, which, despite stellar performances in the main roles, feels nearly weightless and painfully derivative.

Friday, December 5, 2014

100 Words On ... In Bloom

The Georgia of In Bloom, which is set in 1992, is no country for young women. Life is relentlessly bleak for 14-year-old Eka (Lika Babluani) and Natia (Mariam Bokeria), who are surrounded by joyless, mean-spirited adults, ignored or hectored at home, and harassed after school, Eka by bullies and Natia by a macho suitor who refuses to take no for an answer. But Natia’s incandescent courage, Eka’s quiet self-reliance, and both girls’ fierce loyalty and love for each other keeps a flickering ray of hope alive in this ferociously well-acted story of life in the struggling post-Soviet republic. 

Written for The L Magazine

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Concerning Violence

Less a documentary than an illustrated essay, Concerning Violence begins with a mini-lecture by a Columbia University professor on the significance of Frantz Fanon’s classic critique of colonialism, The Wretched of the Earth, which the film sets out to elucidate.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

With its meandering pace and frequent cutaways to plants or animals, Mami Sunada’s documentary about Japan’s Studio Ghibli in some ways mirrors the studio’s animated features. But while there’s greatness in the nonsense and nonsequiturs of soulful films like Spirited Away and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which touch on nearly everything that really matters in human existence, Sunada’s goals seem far more modest. Providing a fan’s-eye view of the studio with an emphasis on director Hayao Miyazaki, she shadows Miyazaki as he goes about his daily routines and films business meetings and press conferences. And, in voiceovers she reads in a girlishly enthusiastic tone of voice, she fills in details about Miyazaki’s long, often complicated relationships with director and cofounder Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, the two other main creative forces behind Studio Ghibli. Read the rest on Slant Magazine.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Getting On Season 2

Unlike the American version of The Office, which turned the original BBC show's odious main character into a loveable goofball, Getting On closely follows its British progenitor's lead. The series features cringe-inducingly self-deluded, insensitive characters, focusing on their awkward relationships and borderline incompetent care in a farcical depiction of the frustration, stagnation, and unlikely moments of grace at a hospital geriatric ward. But like the American Office, its take on its characters is ultimately forgiving, a kind of bemused acceptance.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

100 Words On... The Man Who Came to Dinner

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who wrote the play this film was adapted from, set a whole cupboardful of plates spinning in this madcap comedy. Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley), a razor-tongued metrosexual writer, falls during a visit to a bourgeois Midwestern couple and commandeers their home for the Christmas holidays while he recovers. Holding court in their parlor while his exiled hosts cower upstairs, Sherry receives famous visitors and outrĂ© gifts, hatches convoluted plots, and issues outrageous orders with the blithe assurance that they’ll be followed to the letter.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Braddock America

Another portrait of a former manufacturing giant hollowed out by the global economy's race to the bottom of the wage scale, Braddock America revisits depressingly familiar ground for anyone with an even cursory knowledge of the rusting of the Steel Belt. Films on this subject constitute a genre of their own, and this one stays mostly on well-trodden ground, contrasting present-day images of abandoned houses gone to seed, near-empty churches, and dynamited buildings with archival footage of the enormous steel mill that once offered the men of Braddock, Pennsylvania and their families a ladder to the American dream. Braddock America may lack the humor, creativity, and rib-jabbing cheekiness of classics like Roger & Me, but it's also mercifully free of the ruin-porn shots that turn so many contemporary films about struggling cities into self-consciously arty exercises in the romanticization of decay. Its goal is relatively modest: to capture the story of one town as it was experienced by a number of its residents. The stories they tell, usually addressing the camera directly, form an oral history of a golden era for America's working class—especially those who were white and male.