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.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Night and Fog, another great film about the Holocaust, warns of the danger in treating the Shoah as a one-time event buried safely in the past, perpetuated by evildoers who were fundamentally different than our presumably humane and civilized selves. “Are their faces really different from our own?” its narrator asks. Ida uses an investigation into the annihilation of a fictional Jewish family in Poland to pose the same question, contemplating the horrible helplessness of the ordinary citizens caught in the maws of the Nazis’ murderous totalitarianism. With minimal dialogue, luminous black and white cinematography and penetrating performances by open-faced Agata Trzebuchowska as the contemplative title character and sharp-faced Agata Kulesza as her gallant but cynical aunt Wanda, PaweĊ‚ Pawlikowski's quietly devastating film limns one family’s losses with delicate precision.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Color of Time

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.