WRITTEN REVIEW – Big Eyes (2014)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Tim Burton, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski & Lynette Howell
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter & Jason Schwartzman
Music: Danny Elfman
Release Date: December 26th 2014
Despite being one of the most influential and powerful creative forces in mainstream cinema throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s, director Tim Burton has fallen on hard-times in recent years. With mixed box office success as ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ joined the billion-dollar club in 2010, but films like ‘Dark Shadows‘ and ‘Frankenweenie‘ failed to find an audience as they are considered box-office bombs, not to mention a tepid filmography composed mostly of adaptations; it would seem the king of quirky is struggling to find his voice again.
The big reason for that is that his adaptations over the past decades haven’t been a fit for Burton’s sensibilities. Sure, Tim Burton’s adaptation of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘ or ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ may sound like a match made in heaven, but in reality these projects were undercut by Burton morphing and matching the source material’s meaning and substance to fit his ideologies, often going against the very source material he was adaptating – ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ is NOT a 3-act LOTR-style epic and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘ is NOT a story about “daddy-issues”.
Tim Burton excels when he’s not only a direct match for the source material, but when he has a personal attachment to what he’s telling. ‘Ed Wood‘ in 1994 is easily Burton’s best movie because of this and Burton has teamed up with that same writers for ‘Big Eyes‘, which tells the true-story of the Keane’s who were behind the “Big Eyes” art-movement in the 1960s. The eyes are often perceived as the gate-way to the soul, but is Burton’s artistic passion still to be found behind his?
‘Big Eyes‘ follows Margaret Ulbrich (Adams) in the 1960s after leaving her husband with her daughter to move to San Francisco to start a new life trying to sell her paintings. There, she meets Walter Keane (Waltz), an aspiring European artist and the two are instantly smitten and get married. While Walter’s artwork of Paris streets don’t garner much attention, Margaret’s “Big Eye” pictures start to gain a following which Walter quickly exploits to build a small empire of success, but where he takes credit for the artwork.
“Sadly, people don’t buy lady-art.” feigns Walter.
‘Big Eyes‘ seeks to explore the meaning of ownership and Burton has been blessed with an incredible story to re-tell here. The movie’s strengths truly lie with Amy Adam’s terrific performance as she’s able to capture the distress and trauma that comes from having your most personal work not only snatched away, but to be sold under someone else’s name. Adams not only captures that flawlessly, but Tim Burton is able to subtly manipulate the environment around her character to show her deteriorating state-of-mind through the warped scenery. One of the best scenes of ‘Big Eyes‘ has Margaret at the supermarket and seeing the other customers along with staff members sporting the iconic eyes from her paintings. Whether it’s explicit moments like this or scenes where the reflection of light from her mansion’s pool is seeping into her gallery, or the dust particles shining from the windows as she paints, ‘Big Eyes‘ is akin to Tim Burton’s ‘Ed Wood‘ where it’s simultaneously his most Burton-y film, while also being his most subtle.
While Amy Adams’ Oscar-worthy performance (though she won’t get much recognition because it’s not a very “showy” part) is great on its own, her frailty is exacerbated by Christoph Waltz’s turn as her husband, Walter. Waltz has quickly gained prominence as one of the most prolific actors for playing villains thanks to his brilliant roles in ‘Inglourious Basterds‘, ‘The Green Hornet‘, ‘The Three Muskateers‘ and recently ‘Horrible Bosses 2‘ (incidentally, I have no doubt that Waltz is going to kill it in the upcoming Bond movie ‘Spectre‘ and the 2016 movie ‘Tarzan‘), but his performance in ‘Big Eyes‘ has taken a lot of flack from other critics, citing that his performance is more akin to a pantomime villain as opposed to a believable person. While those criticisms aren’t without merit, Walter, as a character, is very theatrical by nature. While it’s hard to argue that he did the right thing in regards to his treatment of Margaret, there’s no denying that he was a genius salesman. Walter, almost single handedly revolutionised the way that art was consumed by mainstream audiences. That pedigree requires a natural bravado and a ere of romanticism in his day-to-day life, which is something that Waltz naturally excels at.
However, what I believe negates these criticisms relates back to the true-story behind the Keane’s domestic drama. While there are those criticising the script and Waltz’s portrayal for his over-the-top nature, the things he does in the movie really did happen in real life. The actions he took to defend himself in the iconic Keane vs. Keane court case that are depiected towards the end of the movie really did happen, including, but not limited to, Keane acting as his own defence attorney by theatrically talking to himself as both attorney and defendant like a one-man-show.
Yes. That. Really. Happened.
Waltz portrays Walter in an over-the-top manner, but that’s mainly due to representing a non-fictional person as opposed to dramatic-interpretation. If anything, Waltz was subtle compared to the real Walter Keane.
Initially, I was concerned that ‘Big Eyes‘ wasn’t making the most of Walter’s character, in that his work is significantly overshadowed by his wife’s at a time where male ego’s ran wild. There’s even a scene where Margaret goes to a church confession booth and the priest tells her to respect her husband’s wishes without question. But it wasn’t until a 3rd act twist (that even I wasn’t aware of despite knowing the story) that his character fell into place. But Adams and Waltz work incredibly well off each other, consciously contrasting both of their performances creating one of the most magnetic double-acts of 2014. It really is their movie as despite the trailers prominently featuring actors such as Krysten Ritter as Margaret’s friend, Jason Schwartzman as a snooty art connoisseur and Terence Stamp as real-life art historian/critic John Canaday, they don’t have much of a presence in the story.
This is really the only fault that ‘Big Eyes‘ has in terms of absence, save for a slow transition from the 2nd to 3rd act that causes the film to drag and feel longer than its modest 106 minute run-tine. These three characters help give the viewer an insight into what the rest of the world thinks about Keane’s artwork during the events of the film, but ‘Big Eyes‘ ends with the result of the famous court case but none of the aftermath. This is a huge missed opportunity, as Margaret’s art greatly changed in tone after the results of the trial to reflect her change as a person, but we don’t see it. The film shows Canaday’s reaction to hearing the news that Margaret is planning to sue her husband, but we don’t see his reaction to the outcome of the court case. We also don’t see what happens to Waltz’s Walter afterwards, which is a huge missed opportunity in terms of potential drama.
‘Big Eyes‘ depicts events that changed mainstream art, from how it’s created to how it was sold and distributed. But ‘Big Eyes‘ doesn’t show that change. While research could be done to find out what happens after-the-fact, not only should a film because to feel complete on its own, but because of Tim Burton’s unique style and way of depicting characters, it’s disappointing that the audience don’t see how Tim Burton’s world as depicted in ‘Big Eyes‘ reacted to the events.
But Tim Burton’s interpretation of 1960s San Francisco makes for a great big-screen viewing. While the movie is small in scale without any elaborate visual effects, the incredible colours on display as well as the costuming, props and sets create an abstract feel without descending into flat-out fantasy. The outdoor locations are welcoming and brightly coloured, the rolling hills of San Francisco fill up the screen and the make-up/costumes/hair just screams vintage-style that isn’t often seen on movie screens. In the hands of another director, the lack of visual flair could have relagated ‘Big Eyes‘ to a TV-movie standard, but with Burton the film’s gorgeous art direction and production design justify the wide-release. Danny Elfman’s score is also distinct and memorable in a way that is fitting for what’s happening on the screen while also being an entertaining listen on its own while out-of-context.
‘Big Eyes‘, working off the foundations of a compelling true-story, brings out the best in Burton, who, when all is said and done, is still one of the best directors working in mainstream cinema today when working with material that’s personal to him. Thanks to career-best work from Amy Adams along with a memorably larger-than-life performance from Christoph Waltz, ‘Big Eyes‘ manages to convey relevant and compelling themes through the lenses of an experienced creative team. It’s disappointing that the movie doesn’t delve into the aftermath of the Keane trial, outside of the obligatory frames of text before the end-credits, but it’s still a strong, entertaining movie that’s well worth viewing. If the eyes are the window’s of the soul, than ‘Big Eyes‘ demonstrates that Burton still has some flair and passion left in him.
No Johnny Depp, no goofy-clown make-up characters, no stop-motion and no unnecessary manipulation of the source-material. Just great film-making from Burton.
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Posted: 29th Dec 14