big eyes posterWith Big Eyes, director Tim Burton refreshingly returns to more intimate filmmaking and away from the fantasy-enhanced world of his recent movies. Films like Alice In Wonderland (2011) and Dark Shadows (2012) were so concerned with heightening their fantastical premises, performances were lost in special effects and makeup and took a backseat to art direction and production design. The animated Frankenweenie (2012) was wonderful, but it was an extension of a story he first shot as a short in 1984. Burton’s early concern for championing the outsider while sprinkling the film’s narrative with a morbid humor is what made such early films like Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and even his reinterpretation of Batman (1989, 1992) so special. But as story grew more outlandish, characters seemed to grow more hollow and less engaging. Burton’s film just grew dull in their kaleidoscopic exuberance.

With Big Eyes, the Tim Burton who really loves people and their faults is allowed to shine in a film not weighed down by concept and fantasy. The film follows the true-life story of a painter whose images of children with gigantic eyes became so much bigger than their creator in 1950s popular culture that her husband was able to take credit for her work. As much as they are credited for producing an iconic image of the era, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) were also a product of the 1950s, and the film’s drama is very much informed by the culture that celebrated man as the bread-winner and the woman the house-bound, kept person. As the film’s narrator, reporter Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), says, “The ‘50s were a wonderful time if you were a man.”

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Key to a sense of renewal for Burton is the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who have not worked with Burton since this writer’s favorite Burton movie Ed Wood (1994). Once again they have brought to life passionate souls primed for the cinema of Burton. Newly divorced Margaret harnesses the power of art as her only avenue of unencumbered expression. Meanwhile, free-spirited Walter grows so obsessed with co-opting her power, he will sacrifice his eventual marriage to Margaret to maintain the façade that he is the author of her work.

They meet at an art fair in San Francisco (his booth of Paris street scenes is next to hers). “You’re better than spare change” he tells her when she compromises her price from one dollar to 50 cents for a man negotiating the price of a portrait of his son. Walter flirts and flatters her, immediately appearing like a smooth-talking con man, scheming his way into big eyes2her life. Even though her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) is ever suspicious of Walter, the tired and worn out Margaret is easy prey for his charms. They marry quick, even though from the start he sees art very differently than she does. When the meet, he immediately questions her paintings as having “out of proportion” eyes. He describes her subjects as having “big, crazy eyes … like pancakes.”

The script does not ever elevate the art to anything beyond kitsch. Dick calls the subjects “weird hobo kids.” It both isolates Margaret and adds a layer of critique of the era. However, Margaret, a woman desperate to express herself with her art, no matter what others think, still comes across as incredibly sympathetic. Even though an art dealer (Jason Schwartzman) refuses to sell her paintings and is big Eyes Jason Schwartzmanflummoxed when Walter opens a gallery across the street that has lines of people waiting to go inside, Margaret remains steadfast in her pure, honest need to paint these images. “All I ever wanted was to express myself as an artist,” she says, hanging on to the words for dear life. “These children are a part of my being.” Walter, in the meantime, finds a way to mass produce the images and sell them in supermarkets, perplexed by her words. “I’m a businessman,” he counters in his defense for presenting the work as his own creation. “Sadly, people don’t buy lady art,” he explains.

Then there are the performances. Adams does amazing work in a role that asks her to contain herself. She barely speaks, but when she does, her speech is steeped in an expression of repressed emotions with a need to be heard. Reflective of Margaret’s paintings, Adams plays much of her role with her eyes. Waltz plays Walter with a balance of passion for his lies that conflicts with a woman who he thought he married as a kindred spirit. But it’s not on her, it’s on him. As the film comes to reveal he has lied his own sense of being into existence. He’s more than some flimflammer, he’s a man who has corrupted his own sense of self and has dug himself so deep in his own delusions that he can’t find a way out. Waltz plays Walter with an urgent energy of repressed self-doubt that still comes across as sympathetic and not just smarmy. It builds toward a sad denouement, where Walter practically imprisons Margaret in the mansion they built on commercializing her art and a bizarre courtroom battle based on actual transcripts from a slander suit where Walter acts as his own attorney.

BIG EYES

Burton’s style is certainly not lost in all this. The humor comes from pathos and is never ironic. The director’s heightened, graphic style of representing the era is vivid and captivating with the help of production designer Rick Heinrichs and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Early in the film, the road out of the suburbs that Margaret has escaped recalls the simplified, high contrast landscapes of her paintings. When the Keanes honeymoon in Hawaii, the beaches and hotels look like something out of a postcard from the era.

Big Eyes gives us a refreshingly subdued Burton that does not betray his characteristic style of movie making. It also features a subject he finds no trouble investing in, and his own passion for cinema shines through. If it ever over-reaches its sense of realism, it’s only to inform the passions driving these people in the way only Burton can do it, so it feels easy to both forgive and relish. The film comes from a heartfelt place in direction, writing and performance, and it goes to show Burton is still deeper than superficial style.

Hans Morgenstern

Big Eyes runs 105 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens in South Florida at O Cinema – Wynwood on Dec. 25. It’s also being released at pretty much every multiplex across the U.S., but don’t forget to support indie cinema. We caught this film at a free advance screening during Art Basel – Miami Beach.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

inside-llewyn-davis-posterWith their new film Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers show a profound understanding of the existential quandary of musicians. As a longtime chronicler of the local Miami music scene, I have met many talented musicians who have fallen on one side of the fine line of recognition versus the other. In between there are many levels of accomplishments that defy such black and white notions as success versus failure. Whoever thinks becoming a recognizable musician defines success will miss out on the divine subtlety of Inside Llewyn Davis.

One could think of musicians as inter-dimensional travelers. They can move between two distinct worlds: the world of music and the conventional world non-musicians known. With their latest film, the Coens take the viewer Inside Llewyn Davis with only one special effect: the music. Actor/musician and Miami native Oscar Isaac does a stunning job of playing the titular character, a folk singer on the famed Greenwich Village circuit of the early 1960s whose blossoming talent seems doomed to ruin at every turn.

The film opens with a close up view of the bearded Llewyn, softly singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a traditional folk song that has never been attributed to a writer. The camera closes real tight, as he strums an acoustic guitar and sings the entire, dreary song to a darkened, crowded, yet silent cafe. Something almost religious is happening as Llewyn sings and strums. The lyrics speak of a life rich in experience but destined to be cut short by an executioner.

They put the rope around my neck, they hung me very high.
The very last words I heard them say, “It won’t be long ’til you die, poor boy.”
I’ve been all around this world.

Oscar Isaac performing in Joel and Ethan Coens INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

The Coens have admitted to modeling Davis’ character on Dave Van Ronk, an obscure folk artist essential to the Greenwich Village folk scene (just look at this album cover). Van Ronk was known for a purist’s interest in the oral history of folk songs such as “Hang Me.” It’s an example of music that has so overshadowed its composer, no definitive record of its songwriter exists, an ironic touch that’s no accident in the detailed world of the Coens.

The Coen brothers’ interest in a musician who sings such a song foretells what sort of man, outside the music, Llewyn is destined to become. What follows is a journey both pathetic and sublime. It’s sublime in those moments the filmmakers allow for the songs, affectionately produced by T-Bone Burnett, to unfold, always in their entirety, as Llewyn dives into the realm of music and seems to exist in another almost divine world that has a different language and sense of time. Then there are the moments outside the music that reveals a rather sad and sometimes angry life of the homeless folk singer, who must spend much of his energy in search of a friendly couch to sleep on during the snowy winter of the Northeast while also peddling his musical talents.

Llewyn has an incompetent manager who seems far from invested in Llewyn’s music and an irascible sister (Jeanine Serralles) annoyed with his pursuit of art instead of a more practical career. Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake in Joel and Ethan Coens INSIDE LLEWYN DAVISThen there’s Jean (Carey Mulligan), one half of the married sunny singing duo Jim & Jean. She has two-timed Jim (Justin Timberlake) with Llewyn, and she’s angry with Llewyn for maybe getting her pregnant. She flings “fucking asshole” at him like it’s his first name, and Llewyn takes it with hangdog pathos.

Meanwhile, Llewyn tries to eke out a living from his art, which includes a sincere, almost virtuous repertoire of folk songs, including one song that dates back to the 18th century (“Fare Thee Well”). He’s a Luddite musician who hates the idea of selling out yet aspires for some level of success. He’s so haunted by his desire to make an honest, authentic mark, even vandalism in a toilet stall has resonance. “What are you doing?” the universe seems to ask him, adding another heavy ounce of pressure to the matter.

It’s not accidental that Llewyn’s name sounds like Lou and Davis, something belligerent, misanthropic jazz musician and heroin addict Roland Turner (John Goodman doing a harrowing impression of Doc Pomus) so casually notes. Llewyn is a man missing his other half, as is revealed literally early in the film, when he looks at a corny record cover featuring him and another musician, who has met a rather sad, untimely demise. Beyond a literal sense of Llewyn existing as one half of a duo, he is also figuratively half a man when not performing, incomplete without the music. He’s the ideal noble warrior for the purest reason of artistic expression.

Oscar Isaac winter in Joel and Ethan Coens INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

Between naps in the backseat of a car, Roland pokes at Llewyn, shaving down his esteem with insults that Llewyn shakes off with annoyed, quiet resentment. He puts up with the troll of a man, as he is providing the ride to Chicago where he hopes to audition for an important manager named Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Once again, the Coens offer a shadow of greatness as this manager shares a name and an implied history of the impresario who became Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. When Llewyn makes an opportunity to audition for Grossman, it’s a reference to how close he has come to achieving the success he so yearns for. So often the line between success and failure depends on being at the right place at the right time, and no other film captures this with so much melancholy and depth.

Besides a subtle and distinctive sense of humor and pathos to the narrative, the Coens again prove they know how to create an absorbing cinematic atmosphere. Art director Deborah Jensen and costume designer Mary Zophres have worked together to achieve this sepia-toned world of a lost time (and lost opportunity) that is both vintage chic and ghostly somber. Then there’s the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. The image often looks soft and the gray area in which this man exists never blended so well between the black and white. It’s the perfect complement to the muted vision of a world that revolutionized popular music at the time. It befits the unlucky Llewyn, who merely seems a passenger on this ride to near glory. After all, we all know there’s someone else besides him waiting in the shadows to transcend this scene.

Hans Morgenstern

Inside Llewyn Davis runs 105 min. and is rated R (for cussing and sexual references). The only art house that has it in South Florida is the Coral Gables Art Cinema, where it opens this Friday, Dec. 20. As for the multiplexes in South Florida showing the film, they include:

AMC Sunset Place
Regal South Beach
AMC Aventura
Cinemark Paradise
Cinemark Palace
Cinemark Boynton Beach
Paragon Jupiter 18

But the best seat to see to see the film in South Florida, as ever, is the Coral Gables Art Cinema. CBS Films invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of awards consideration. Those living in other parts of the U.S. can insert their zip code here for nearby theaters hosting this film.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Faust_posterMore than two years, since it took the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust finally arrives in Miami theaters. The film lost steam soon after its somewhat controversial win, beating such hyped films that as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the George Clooney-directed The Ides of March and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Thankfully, the obscure film distributor Leisure Time Films has stepped in to present the film in U.S. art houses. As the years passed, while Faust remained in limbo, Sokurov’s film remains one of the most unusual cinematic experiences adventurous film lovers can expect from 2013’s crop of movies.

The latest and supposedly final film in his tetralogy exploring the corrupting effect of power, Sokurov’s take on Goethe’s classic version of the German legend is a visually stunning work. The story has never been depicted with as surreal a touch as this film, yet it never forsakes the morality of the classic tale, making the struggle between good and evil feel visceral and innate to a disturbing degree. Despite the dark theme, Sokurov, best known for his one-take epic at the Hermitage, Russian Ark, does not forget the beauty of life, for this film offers rich instances of beguiling imagery in juxtaposition to the horror Dr. Faust must face in his quest for evidence that the soul exists.

Despite its rapid-fire dialogue, Sokurov knows better than to use words as substitute for the literature. There is no rhyme scheme in the chatter as with Goethe’s source material. Though Sokurov still places the film in the time and place of Goethe (Early 19th Century Germany), there are dramatic compromises in the story that emphasize the director’s interest in looking at the duality of man. As with any film adaptation based on literature, changes are inevitable, but what matters is how true to the theme the director maintains his film version. In Sokurov’s Faust, evil does not come from the outside in the form of the devil but from within. In the place of Mephistopheles, Sokurov introduces a scraggly old man called Moneylender (Anton Adasinsky) to seduce Faust in his quest for knowledge of the ultimate understanding.

Adasinskiy_Zeiler

Heinrich Faust is played with an edge-of-madness desperation by Johannes Zeiler, a man on a zealous quest for a sense of transcendence beyond the physical world. We meet him after a close up of a rotten penis, as he disassembles a corpse. He is not as interested in rotting guts as much as the place in the body that might harbor a man’s soul. He loses sleep over this obsession. His father, who is also a doctor and is treating a patient for back pain by strapping him to a rack, shrugs off his son’s concerns, saying, “It’s all matter.” Then the Moneylender wanders into his life, showing invincibility to hemlock. Intrigued, Faust tags along with him, and a great dialogue unfolds across bizarre adventure of murder, lust and greed.

Sokurov is interested in creating a cinematographic compliment to the literature of Goethe. The art of cinema meanwhile lies in the visuals, and what a lush, florid film Sokurov has created. The tight, 4:3 aspect ratio, with rounded corners enhance the film’s claustrophobic quality.

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The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel proves essential to the film’s mesmerizing quality. This is a talent who brought a certain flavor to films by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie and A Very Long Engagement) and Tim Burton (Dark Shadows). Most recently he worked with the Coen Brothers on what’s sure to be one of the great films of 2013, Inside Llewyn Davis (my review is coming next week). The lighting is sometimes so expressive, some frames look like a Brueghel painting. Beautiful newcomer Isolda Dychauk plays Faust’s love interest Margarete. She is so ideally shot, she sometimes looks like a wax figure.

The camera work feels as important to the film as the dialogue. It enhances the film’s surreal atmosphere with a soft, shallow focus and a seemingly random use of shifting aspect ratios within scenes. There are moments when the characters are warped diagonally, pulled from one corner to another, as they are squeezed into the academy aspect ratio of the frame. It’s a hyper-realized version of the Dutch angle that not only shows something wicked may be afoot, but also spiritually wrong from within these people.

The film may challenge some. The subtitles slip by sometimes as fast as the banter. The stunning imagery, including costumes and set pieces, are so luscious they may pull your attention from the dialogue. In the end, as Faust travels down a spiral toward a discomforting realization of evil that may be in contrast to what you think you see on-screen, you may feel as if you stepped out of a two-hour version of Mad Hatter’s Tea Cup ride at Disney World. But it’s so worth it.

Hans Morgenstern

Faust runs 134 minutes, is in German with English subtitles and is unrated (note: it’s gory, sensual and dark). It opens in our area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood and Cinema Paradiso-Fort Lauderdale this Friday, Dec. 13. The following Friday, Dec. 17, it opens at the MDCulture Art Cinema at Koubek Theater in Miami. The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. Faust only recently began its U.S. run and will continue to open in other theaters into 2014, for screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)