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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Burton Bounce

Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Published Thursday January 22, 05:41 pm
Big Eyes isn’t brilliant, but at least it’s accessible
Big Eyes
Once considered one of the most innovative filmmakers around, Tim Burton found himself trapped in a cell of his own making. His movies became massive air-locked constructions that appealed to few and had no room for spontaneity (Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd) — a far cry from his early work like the breezy Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and the pleasantly deranged Beetlejuice.
Based on the life of American artist Margaret Keane, Big Eyes isn’t a complete return to form, but it’s at least a start. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter are nowhere to be found, and the characters at least resemble real, flawed (some deeply) people.
A single mother with brush skills and a pile of debt, Margaret (Amy Adams) can barely make ends meet, let alone live off her art — meaning she’s easy prey for the smooth-talking Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a hustler who sells bland paintings of Parisian venues. After very little time the two get married and achieve a degree of functionality, if not outright happiness.
The balance is thrown out of whack when Margaret’s paintings begin to sell. Following the old adage “the eyes are windows to the soul” quite literally, Keane paints her subjects with disproportionately large pupils. The effect is striking, if hardly groundbreaking and with no connection whatsoever to contemporary art trends. No matter. The masses (and Andy Warhol) love them, to the chagrin of art gallery owners and critics everywhere.
But here’s the catch: Walter takes credit for the work, while assuring Margaret this is just a strategy to drive up the price of the paintings. The arrangement slowly poisons their relationship and eventually forces Margaret to take control of her own life.
Unlike in his sweet, wacky biopic Ed Wood, Burton ensures that Big Eyes is firmly grounded, as his penchant for transforming outcasts into heroes is limited to the vindication of the mousy Margaret. Only a few times does he really let loose, as in the pastel-heavy recreation of San Francisco or the few moments in which we see the world through Margaret’s eyes. Mostly, Burton allows the story to dictate the visual approach.
There are some shades of grey that make Big Eyes more interesting. Walter, the putative villain, was a marketing wiz in a period when there wasn’t such a thing. Realizing regular people couldn’t fork out hundreds of dollars for an original Keane, Walter kickstarted the mass production of art (posters, cards, stickers), but alas, his artistic aspirations blinded him to his business achievents. Waltz doesn’t stretch beyond his usual friendly sociopath shtick, but it’s serviceable for the purposes of the character.
There’s a nifty aspect to the casting that’s likely to get missed in the hustle, as Amy Adams’ enormous blue eyes contrast dramatically with the tiny, inscrutable pair owned by Christoph Waltz. Hard to deny that Margaret Keane was onto something…
Keep On Keepin’ On
Broadway (opens Sunday 25)
Of all the Oscar nomination snubs, this one miffed me the most. Keep On Keepin’ On may not be the most technically proficient documentary, but as subjects go it’s very hard to do better than Clark Terry.
Terry’s life is tightly intertwined with the modern history of American jazz. A swing and bebop specialist credited with introducing the flugelhorn into the genre, Terry was mentored by Louis Armstrong, played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington and was called the greatest jazz trumpet player on earth by Dizzy Gillespie. It really doesn’t get any better than that.
Yet Clark Terry’s main contribution to America’s foremost musical genre is as an educator, as he’s mentored several generations of musicians, including jazz legends Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. Keep On Keepin’ On wisely focuses this angle, and specifically on the 90-year-old musician’s relationship with blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin.
The stage-shy Kauflin and the increasingly weaker Terry have an easy rapport. Clark is a tremendously effective teacher even when bed-ridden; his body is failing him, but his mind is sound and his musical sense is as sharp as ever. In a beautiful scene, Terry hums an old tune, possibly not even recorded, and Justin reproduces it on his keyboard with remarkable ease. You can see the old man brighten up by listening to what just seconds ago was a fuzzy memory.
Keep On Keepin’ On is the anti-Whiplash, as Clark enables his students to find their own voice, yet encourages discipline to the point of obsession. This becomes particularly clear when Quincy Jones comes for a visit: Jones is 80, yet his deference towards his mentor is pronounced and touching.
The documentary is barely more than a series of vignettes, but little else is required. If nothing else, there are plenty of jazz-cat catchphrases to take home. My personal favorite: “Are your lips greasy?”
The Humbling
Broadway (opens Friday 23)
While Al Pacino’s career over the last decade hasn’t been quite as random or disheartening as Robert De Niro’s, his choices haven’t been all that much better. But after hitting rock bottom (as Adam Sandler’s love interest in Jack & Jill, ugh), Pacino rebounded as a stalwart on HBO and in indie cinema. Unexpectedly, he seems to be getting his groove back.
Unfortunately, The Humbling as a whole doesn’t quite match up to the Oscar winner’s other recent efforts. Pacino is Simon Axler, a once-celebrated stage actor who’s lost his “mojo” (not unlike Pacino himself). A Birdman-like breakdown sends Axler to a mental hospital and turns him into a recluse.
Because this is a Philip Roth adaptation, a young and gorgeous woman shows up at his door to get the thespian out of his funk. Pegeen (Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha) is a lesbian teacher who, sexual preferences notwithstanding, has a major crush on Simon. The two embark on an ill-advised relationship in which mental health and greed become decisive factors.
By displaying a wide variety of phobias and insecurities, Pacino nails the acting legend stereotype. (Maybe he didn’t have to stretch too far.) In spite of shelves filled with awards and recognitions, Axler feels like a fraud most of the time. Further complexity comes from the aging factor, which leads to a number of humiliations. But the relationship aspect of the film, which doesn’t work (he’s far more invested than she is), is a major flaw because the movie relies heavily on it.
The Humbling is directed by Barry Levinson. Once a studio staple (Rain Man, Bugsy), Levinson was let go after one flop too many. Unlike Pacino though, Levinson doesn’t seem likely to rebound, if this film is any indication.
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