Tag Archives: Amy Adams

TIM BURTON’S BIG EYES (2014)

Big Eyes (2015) is probably ‘s most satisfactory film since Ed Wood (1994). Alas, that is a minuscule compliment. Burton began as a refreshing original working within a tinseled industry, but formulaic demands soon rendered his later work imitative and an example of style over substance.

Burton was once the hip auteur for the perennial college and goth crowds. Now, he is the butt of their humor: a cautionary warning of a sell-out losing all originality and vitality.

He went the distance in proving the cynical naysayers correct, reaching his nadir with Alice in Wonderland (2010), which jettisoned authentic Carrollesque surrealism in favor of populist fluff and a cringe-inducing slice of Johnny Depp ham.

In vain, one hoped Burton had nowhere to go but up, but he only continued his slide, proving nostalgia is fleeting with an ill-advised and execrable update of Dark Shadows (2012). He followed this with a pointless, self-plagiarized feature, Frankenweenie (2012), which predictably worked better in its original version as a compact short.

Burton is certainly not immune to critical fallout. Of course, it has hardly affected his box office standing, but popularity with aesthetically illiterate masses is only salt to the wound.

With Big Eyes, Burton belatedly responds to critics by playing the narcissistic victim, projecting himself onto the figure of artist Margaret Keane. In doing so, he damn near kills the film, but, surprisingly, his opus (barely) survives him.

Still from Big Eyes (2014)Burton’s epic misstep is in subduedly addressing Keane’s art as kitsch. It is kitsch. There is nothing original about her mass-produced  art for the Walmart home spread. Her illustrations are a kind of synthetic parody of Modigliani.  Yet, Burton is a Keane fan, and fan is short for fanatic.  Naturally, he takes the fanboy approach in identifying with his object of adulation. Undoubtedly, Burton can find affinity in Keane’s strategical marketing to a bourgeoise public.

In pedestaling Margaret Keane’s gimmicky, one-note cartoons, Burton casts the art critics and gallery dealers as two-dimensional, jealous predators. It’s the equivalent of a cinematic exclamation point, or a big bang at the end of a pedestrian symphony. The homogenous Tim Burton/Margaret Keane hybrid becomes a much put-upon martyr. Cue big, puppy-eyed closeup.  It is the kind of manipulative choice that Spielberg used to be so goddamned guilty of.

Big Eyes would have been a far better film had Burton made a smarter choice by avoiding the topic altogether, or in taking either an objective or idiosyncratic approach (as he did in Ed Wood). In many ways, Big Eyes serves as little sister to Ed Wood, but in that earlier film, a younger, fresher director did not succumb to tomfoolery. Continue reading TIM BURTON’S BIG EYES (2014)

CAPSULE: HER (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: Still wounded by his divorce, professional letter writer Theodore Twombly retreats from human relationships into a lonely life of videogames, gossip websites, and anonymous phone sex. However, his world changes after he upgrades to “the first artificially intelligent operating system,” a sentient program named Samantha that he initially treats with suspicion but soon accepts as a confidant, then a lover. When Twombly and Samantha becomes more intimate, though, her insatiable curiosity about the world strains their bond and threatens to recreate the heartbreak that Twombly experienced once before.

Still from Her (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Twombly and Samantha’s pairing is weird, Jonze’s story glosses over the odder aspects of the couple to concentrate on the universal qualities of the affair. The early introduction of phone sex normalizes the sensuous but purely vocal encounter between man and program that begins their romance, and the casual acceptance of their relationship by others further overlooks uncomfortable questions that another film might dwell upon. Instead, Jonze uses the scenario to fancifully illustrate the needs, passions, and pains felt by anyone who falls in love, even a woman who exists within a digital cloud.

COMMENTS: One of Her’s most endearing moments occurs after Twombly and Samantha’s first sexual encounter, when he awkwardly tells his OS that he isn’t interested in a serious relationship. It’s strange to see a morning after scene play out between a man and his computer, and yet that strangeness is absent from the dialogue as Johannson responds with the same charming annoyance and veiled attraction she’d provide in any romantic comedy. On the surface Samantha is defined by her nonphysical nature, but the warmth of Johannson’s performance shows the character’s emotions are not constrained by the lack of a body, that she feels with as much range and depth as any person. Rather than asking if computer programs could ever feel love, as other sci-fi films have, love is not merely possible but inevitable for Samantha. In Her, love is a fundamental part of intelligent life, and so anyone worthy of being called alive, whether human or artificial, naturally must be able to love.

At the same time, Her envisions an emotionally barren future where media technology isolates people from each other, eroding the personal connections they need to thrive. Twombly embodies that isolation as he shuffles from work to home with his eyes glued to one high-tech device or another, engaging others in only the most superficial ways. However, Phoenix’s awkward, self-enclosing performance also suggests someone not just glued to technology but also afraid of emotions, even as his sensitive letters hint at a deeply empathetic soul. Like Samantha, Twombly has a natural ability to love, but unlike his newborn OS he is burdened by past romantic failures and the fear of seeing them repeated, which discourages him from pursuing love at all. That fear pushes Twombly into a stupefying routine of media consumption that keeps other people, and the emotional risks attached to them, safely at bay. Whereas Samantha’s urge to love gives her life, Twombly’s reluctance to love leads him to numbly, thoughtlessly live out his days in front of machines, depriving him of a real life.

Given Twombly’s attachment to machines, it’s fitting that the person who finally reaches him is herself part of a machine. The chemistry between the characters is palpable despite Samantha’s invisibility, not solely because of Johannson’s strong voice work but also because of Phoenix’s total commitment to the conceit. In one scene Twombly shuts his eyes and lets Samantha guide him through a busy carnival, and as he follows her voice he moves so eagerly and joyfully that she could be leading him by the hand. Conversely, when Samantha disappears at various points in the film, Twombly’s solitude exceeds that of a man simply standing by himself. In Phoenix’s face we see a wordless grief through which Samantha’s absence is apparent, and through that sense of absence the invisible character takes shape.

Twombly is shaped by the relationship too as he ends his solitude and begins to let other people connect with him again. By the end, Twombly has realized that the ability to form those connections is itself a marvelous thing, regardless of whether or not they end in heartbreak. Samantha herself is not a perfect mate and Twombly’s relationship with her never seems sustainable, but the film treasures their bond no matter how absurd and fleeting it may be. In a world where people can rely on technology to smooth out the complications in their lives, Her argues that something as complicated and ephemeral as love has a place in our lives too, that love is in fact still what makes life worth living.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With Jonze playing down his trademark absurdist humour and opting for a melancholy tone, we are left with a rather sad cautionary tale.”–Simon Weaving, Screenwize (contemporaneous)