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.

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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.)

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Every year, during the first week of December, Miami becomes home to Art Basel – Miami Beach, one of the most important art fairs in the world. While usually celebrating visual art and artists around the world at the Miami Beach Convention Center, there are now many satellite events that celebrate all forms of culture and artistic expression. Here at Independent Ethos we are ecstatic that films are part of these events. Here’s a brief guide for film lovers who wish to navigate Art Week in Miami.

1. Warhol’s “Silver Screen/Silver Factory” playing at the Miami Beach Cinematheque

Direct from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Miami Beach Cinematheque will be presenting “Lupe,” a 1965 film starring Edie Sedgwick. “Lupe” tells the story of young starlet, Lupe Velez who committed suicide and was found in a toilet. In “Lupe” we get Warhol’s take on popular culture. A must for the Basel-going cinephile. Lupe runs 36 mins. and will be shown on a 16mm dual projection on Thursday, Dec. 4 at 9 p.m., as the artist originally intended. Make sure to be there early to enjoy the Warhol-related photography exhibit as well.

2. Tim Burton’s Big Eyes at the Colony Theater

On Friday Dec. 5 at 8:30 p.m. there will be a free screening of Big Eyes at the Colony Theater. Starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes tells the story of painter Margaret Keane and her artistic awakening. Her paintings were popularized by her husband Walter Keane, who became famous by revolutionizing the commercialization and accessibility of popular art with his enigmatic paintings of waifs with big eyes. Walter also took credit for the paintings. With Big Eyes director Tim Burton analyzes the relationship between husband and wife, as well as the relationship between the artist and its work.

The film will be followed by a discussion organized by Art Basel. Big Eyes runs 108 minutes.

3. Advice Station by MK Guth at the Aqua Hotel

MK Guth is a multimedia artist and professor based in Portland, Oregon. Her video installation “Advice Station” is part psychiatry office and part information booth, where visitors can share personal advice that will later be assembled by the Elizabeth Leach Gallery in a book.  Advice Station is on view Dec. 3-7 at the Aqua Hotel. Tickets are available here.

4. Short Film Program: “The Night of Forevermore”

Art Basel will be hosting short film programs every night at the Soundscape wall of the New World Symphony. “The Night of Forevermore” will be on view on Dec.5, from  9 to 10 p.m. and will feature the following shorts: Un chien andalou by Ciprian Mureşan, which re-imagines Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s classic film and combines it with Shrek characters. For this short alone I would make the trip to the Soundscape. Look at a preview of the short here:

The program will also feature Feeling 4 (2000) by Tomislav Gotovac. Gotovac was a multidisciplinary artist from the former Yugoslavia who prominently features the body in his work. The Apple (2006) by Olaf Breuning. The Apple is a black and white silent film that is a welcomed humorous respite for this program. Next up is The Stranger, the Stranger, and the Stranger (2006) by Jose Dávila, a Mexican artist who was commissioned this film by Nownesswhere he re-imagines a classic western themed stand-off. Laure Prouvost created OWT (2007); the French artist is best known for winning the Turner Prize in 2013 for a tea party art installation. Maya Watanabe’s A-PHAN-OUSIA (2008), is an introspective short piece by the Madrid-based artist that explores filmmaking by removing its context but leaving in interwoven quotes that create an alternative meaning. La Traviata by Tim Davis (2013) shows seemingly straightforward images of different female characters singing. Each image, however, is packed with meaning, from the different languages represented in the singing to contrasting backgrounds that evoke connection between places and people. The singing changes languages, the landscapes are open and wide, suggestive of possibility. Hans Op de Beeck’s Parade (2012) and Alex Prager’s Sunday (2010) will also be on view. Finally, the program will be showing the title theme: The Night of Forevermore (2012) by Marnie Weber, which is quite an atmospheric piece. Catch a glimpse of it below.

To read about other video installations projected at the Soundscape Wall or presented by Art Basel – Miami Beach, please visit this link.

Ana Morgenstern

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

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Father’s Day is fast approaching, offering the perfect time to celebrate some of the best cinematic depictions of father figures in independent filmmaking. Unlike mainstream media, independent filmmakers tend to focus on the flaws that make these characters unique, memorable and relate-able. Some of these films can be seen as moving tributes while others appear more like indictments. Whatever the case, they are sure to stir up a reaction.

Father. There are few words that bring out so many conflicting emotions, either because of your own father or for the weight you attach to that word in relationship to your own family. This Father’s Day, whether you love, dislike or feel indifferent to your father, it is likely that you will be prompted to think about him if only because of constant reminders to shop, shop, shop for him! Here at Independent Ethos we suggest you take some time to relax and reminisce with some great films featuring memorable fathers that deserve to be re-watched or should be considered must-sees if you haven’t caught them yet.

1. The Royal Tenenbaums

Not only is this one of my favorite films in general, but it also features one of the best realized father figures in Wes Anderson‘s oeuvre, which tends to explore the complexity of familial ties. Gene Hackman plays Royal Tenenbaum (yes, that’s the name of the patriarch!), a former lawyer who was disbarred by one of his own sons in one of the funniest montages of the film (there are several). Royal is the yang to the family’s more polished, sensitive, over-achieving group of geniuses. He curses, says overly crude things in a direct way, plays favorites and disappoints every member of the family at some point. He redeems himself only through death and reveals a tender loving father underneath that figure everyone had loved to hate.

Opening scene:

2. The Squid and the Whale

If you ever wondered what it’s like growing up with a narcissistic father, this film will get you close to that experience. The Squid and the Whale presents a dysfunctional family, struggling to overcome what seems to be a traumatic divorce. Jeff Daniels’ portrayal of Bernard Berkman is masterful. Bernard finds competition everywhere. He’s bitter to see his ex-wife get recognition on her writing abilities (Bernard is a writer as well). He challenges his ex-wife’s tennis-trainer boyfriend to a match of tennis. And sabotages his older teenage son’s dating life. Lest you think, now this is an awful father, director Noah Baumbach also does an amazing job showing a troubled individual who struggles to re-define himself as a middle-aged man. The writing alone in this film is superb, full of sharp witticism, sarcasm and heartfelt depth. Baumbach’s writing has excelled at depicting the self-involved male, from Mr. Jealousy and Greenberg, but to this writer, Bernard Berkman takes the cake. The Squid and the Whale is filled with quotable moments, such as a scene featuring Bernard talking to his younger son about his ex-wife’s new love interest.

Bernard: Ivan is fine, but he’s not a serious guy. He’s a philistine.
Frank: What’s a philistine?
Bernard: It’s a guy who doesn’t care about books and interesting films and things. Your mother’s brother Ned is also a philistine.
Frank: Then I’m a philistine.
Bernard: No, you’re interested in books and things.
Frank: [pause] No, I’m a philistine.

Trailer:

3. Raising Arizona

Fatherhood does not necessarily come with procreation. In Raising Arizona, recidivist convict H.I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) meets police officer Edwina “Ed” McDunnough (Holly Hunter), and in classic Coen fashion, they fall in love. They dream about starting a family only to find out that Ed is barren. Alas, adoption is also out of the question since Ed has a long criminal history. Soon after, though, they hear about a couple having quintuplets and they decide why not take one of those babies. They name the baby Nathan Junior. The adventure of having a family— even if construed illegally— changes Hi to reveal a caring guy. Full disclosure: I am not a huge Nicholas Cage fan, but in Raising Arizona he delivers a  performance of great comedic timing and a soft touch. A Father’s Day feel-good movie!

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4. Kolya

Prepare to have your heart thoroughly melted, tugged and pulled. Kolya is the story of a Czech life-loving bachelor who was once a concert cellist. Living under Soviet rule, Louka (Zdenek Sverák) was fired from the philharmonic after being blacklisted by the communist party and now works at a crematorium playing music. In order to make some extra cash he marries a Russian woman who then uses her Czech nationality to migrate to West Germany. In the meantime, she leaves behind her 5-year old son, Kolya (Andrey Khalimon), who speaks only Russian. While communication between Louka and Kolya is rough at the beginning, a strong bond begins to form. Louka’s transition from womanizer to a father figure is beautifully carried by actor/screenwriter Sverák. The on-screen chemistry between the two truly makes you believe that this relationship, which transcends language, will define both men. Just like Raising Arizona, Kolya shows that fatherhood transcends biological constraints.

Kolya is now a classic. It received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1997. The critically acclaimed movie is a must and could be inspiration for fathers-to-be!

5. Big Fish

This is perhaps the most personal of all these entries. Big Fish, I must confess, reminds me of my own journey in discovering my father. Directed by Tim Burton, Big Fish tells the story of Ed Bloom (Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney), who tries to get a grasp of his dying father’s life through the stories he used to tell. He finds that truth lies somewhere between myth and reality. Burton captures the vivid imagination of a child who hears stories from his father through fantastic visuals. The dream-like quest of finding the truth only becomes clear and vivid as Ed Bloom senior passes away. The film is a reminder that life should be celebrated, and what better time to do so than during Father’s Day!

Ana Morgenstern

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

You have to admire Christopher Nolan. Count him among those few Hollywood directors alluded to in an earlier post who can prop up a tent-pole film franchise with minimal artistic compromise. Nolan is also among those few former indie directors working in Hollywood with the fortitude to maintain his voice in the corporate machine of mass-consumption filmmaking. In the Dark Knight Rises, his third film following the comic book hero Batman, he finishes his trilogy with a giant flourish that never forgets its humanity. The film has a visually symphonic quality so brilliantly composed, it makes its near three-hour runtime fly past. In this day where filmmakers seem to pander to the continued shortening of attention spans to produce a film of such a runtime at Warner Bros. is a feat in itself. But the film also offers so much more. The key to the film’s brisk pace lies in Nolan’s unsentimental cutting of scenes, the invested performances of his actors and an ingenious plot design (whose major twists you will not find spoiled here).

Though the story of the Dark Knight Rises unfolds along the classical dramatic curve of screenwriting made famous by Syd Field, Nolan knows how to push it to edgy extremes and stay with it. When Batman and his beloved Gotham City seem to arrive at their nadir, the twists never relent, all the way to the film’s final frame. Watching the Dark Knight Rises unfold feels like watching an elaborate sculpture form out of an intricately laid out array of toppling dominoes that span an array of directions and double back. You can tell Nolan has learned a lot from his last film, Inception (2010), whose story of dreams within dreams wrapped in a mystery-heist-thriller, also probably owes a debt of its own existence to Nolan’s reputation as Batman’s current cinematic creator. Most everything that happens in the Dark Knight Rises feels connected and warranted. As he has firmly stated in interviews, this marks the end of his trilogy of Batman films, and it makes for one heck of a finale. The Dark Knight Rises even has an ending nearly as good as Inception.

Nolan inherited the Batman franchise on somewhat shaky ground in his career as an indie director gone Hollywood. He burst onto the mainstream’s radar with Memento (2000), a film with twists in its narrative structure so visceral it could leave an audience member dizzy by the end credits. However, a remake of the Swedish thriller Insomnia (2002) followed. It felt so devoted to the original, it left many with a “why-bother” shrug. Somehow Nolan was next handed the keys to Batman, after the famed DC Comics hero was re-envisioned from sixties-era camp to stylized Gothic hero by Tim Burton and then run into the ground by Joel Schumacher who would miscast a glut of distracting Hollywood stars.

With Batman Begins (2005), Nolan would re-write the degree of sincerity warranted to a form of entertainment (the comic book) invented to amuse teenage boys in the early part of the 20th Century. Until Nolan, Hollywood had long treated the comic book film as disposable entertainment. Even the Burton films feel slight in comparison to what Nolan created. Nolan instead focused on the gray areas that had long kept comic books alive with adult readers in the 1980s, when the term “graphic novel” appeared, as well as trailblazing independent comic book publishers that explored more grown-up dimensions of character and society.

Played by Christian Bale, Nolan’s Batman felt tortured and haunted. But beyond the characters, Nolan knew how to incorporate social malaise as part of his Batman stories. His second Batman film, The Dark Knight (2008), famously examined the moral compromise of a country spying on its own citizens in the wake of President George W. Bush’s administration policy to wiretap citizens without a warrant (read this). Meanwhile Batman’s antagonist was the nihilistic Joker, whose sole motivation for violence was to have a laugh. Heath Ledger would go on to win a posthumous Oscar® for his portrayal.

Picking up where the Dark Knight left off, the Dark Knight Rises brings a new nemesis into the mix along with another prescient story. Clearly inspired by Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the 1997 graphic novel written by Sin City’s Frank Miller, Batman’s alter ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne has gone into recluse mode. After Gotham City passes an ordinance that seems to put criminals in jail with minimal due process, Batman “retires.” The law, called the Dent Act, alludes to one of the other villains of the Dark Knight who ironically met his demise a martyr at the hands of Batman. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) used to be the city’s District Attorney, until his face was partially melted away by the Joker, turning him into the psychotically schizophrenic Two-Face. When Batman kills Two-Face to save the life of the police commissioner’s son, Batman takes the fall for the sake of Dent’s legacy and the passage of the law.

Enter the revolutionary: Bane (Tom Hardy), a misguided monster out to “save” Gotham from a perceived tyrannical rule that implicates the city’s wealthiest, including Wayne. References to class warfare abound. When Bane and his thugs terrorize brokers on the floor of the stock exchange, 98 percent of the audience will probably find themselves rooting for Bane.

The muscle-bound Bane almost shares as much screen time as Batman. He starts as an enigma who also wears a mask, which generates a tortured but eloquent voice, similar to Batman. His origins eventually come to light, and he becomes humanized to almost creepy affect, as a sort of echo chamber of all that seems rotten in today’s society.

Beyond Batman’s already established regular sidemen Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Wayne’s father-figure butler Alfred (Michael Caine), the film introduces several new characters into the mix and takes time to flesh them all out with conflicted characterizations, one of the best, next to Bane, being Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). Dumping the campy dominatrix quality of the Catwoman in Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), this Catwoman grows from ethereal mystery woman to a creature of charm and heart. But another delightful introduction into the mix is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an ambitious “hothead” of a rookie cop, John Blake. Both Hardy and Gordon-Levitt make returns from Inception, as does Marion Cotillard who plays Miranda, a cipher of a character more complex than she at first seems. Great performers are present all over this film, not the least of which is Bale himself who treats his Bruce Wayne/Batman with as much care as his portrayal of the real-life Dieter Dengler in Werner Herzog’s amazing and underseen Rescue Dawn.

Though the film sustains an edgy, dark tone with its drab, cold color palette, the Dark Knight Rises defines itself with action. The set pieces, including a mid-air plane hijacking scene that introduces Bane, takes one’s breath away. Nolan incorporates digital effects with subtlety among live-action stunt sequences (that plane scene!). Unlike most of these films, Nolan seems to skip out on the digital “stuntmen,” heightening the film’s realistic qualities and, in effect, the film’s stakes. Nolan also avoided the temptation (and probably the pressure) to shoot the film in 3D. It was however, partially shot on IMAX, so the bigger the screen the better.

Having long ago set the tone for the current new era of proper super hero films, there is little room for Nolan to reinvent Batman, however. It just as well may end here (though his next job happens to be as producer on the reboot of the next Superman Film). I should not fail to mention that the Dark Knight Rises is not without its action movie tropes. The film indulges in a couple too many monologues of righteousness between characters that these do-or-die action films tend to lean on for characterization. Also, as much hype was placed on keeping Bane’s plan for Gotham secret, the film should be docked for giving us another climactic “countdown” that’s almost de rigueur in action movies. However, it does redeem itself for revealing the flaws in the goals of the Tea Party-type (or Occupy) extremist Bane. His plan to “give Gotham back to the people” results in a terrifying portrait of anarchy that Nolan does not fear dwelling on for an effective amount of screen time.

Another crutch that seems over-used at first but later brilliantly subverted includes the bombastic mood-enhancement of Hans Zimmer’s score. It can get grating in its obvious quality during the beginning of the film. I began to worry how much longer will the film rely on the layering crescendo of an orchestra and the boom from a barrage of percussion to make its point that this is scene or that scene is DRAMATIC. Then there arrives this fantastic moment about an hour into the film when Nolan eschews music to nerve-wracking effect. It happens during the first confrontation between Bane and Batman in the sewers of Gotham. You almost forgive the initial overuse of scoring ahead of the scene where the only soundtrack is the sound of physical violence. The moment also includes a wise decision by Nolan to include momentary cutaways to a few scattered onlookers, most of which are Bane’s henchmen. Contrary to many of these moments in the good v. evil canon, they do not cheer their leader on, but watch with a quiet, cold, curious interest. It’s the accumulation of these small but definitive moments inserted among terse action sequences that make the film such an awe-inspiring thing to watch unfold.

Hans Morgenstern

My favorite of the four trailers available, as of this post:

The Dark Knight Rises is rated PG-13 and runs 164 minutes. You can catch it at any multi-plex right now in HD, 35mm and IMAX.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)