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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 26, 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 52
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Burton's Big Eyes oddly lifeless
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

BIG EYES
Now playing


During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) looked like he had the world in the palm of his hands. A celebrated artist known for his depiction of big-eyed children in various stages of trepidation and despair, he helped revolution the industry, making a mint selling copies and prints of his most treasured works and making art consumable for the masses and not just the wealthy. He broke the rules and forged his own path, his paintings changing the art world forever in ways still being felt today.

Problem is, he didn't actually paint any of the works he was most famous for, his wife Margaret (Amy Adams) did. He convinced her that no one would take the art seriously if her name was attached to it, if it were known that a woman was painting these surreal little children. She believed him, was certain he was right, and not until the two were long divorced and she'd retreated from California to Hawaii did Margaret find the strength to take her ex to court and state to the world she was the artist, him nothing more than a charlatan pretending to be one.

Reuniting with Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Big Eyes is an obvious labor of love for director Tim Burton. More importantly, it's a major step up from his last couple of live action efforts, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, the film a suitably flamboyant look at a real life bit of craziness that no one ever would have believed had it not actually happened.

But does it rise to the same sort of heights Ed Wood gloriously did? Sadly, no. More than that, the idiosyncratic touches that made that film close to genius are oddly absent this time around, Burton, Alexander and Karaszewski taking a far more straightforward and by-the-numbers approach to the Keane story than anticipated. It's strangely devoid of quirks and surreal little touches that would make it feel more than your average movie-of-the-week melodrama, and as such it's nowhere near as interesting or as effective as it might have been otherwise.

Not that any of this matters as it concerns Adams. She's terrific, make no mistake, delivering another exceptional, suitably authentic performance that feels truthful and real. There's real insecurity and pain hiding in plain sight within this timid wallflower, a roaring tigress screaming to get out but incapable of making itself heard for fear of what doing so could mean as it concerns her young daughter (by another marriage) Jane. The joy she feels when completing a painting is palpable, as is her ultimate victory when Margaret sees her name restored to her work and Walter's sent into ignominious shame. Adams is a delight start to finish, delivering a mesmerizing portrait of a woman finding the strength to come into her own that's undeniably wondrous.

Waltz is also good, but in all honesty, Walter Keane is so inside the two-time Academy Award-winner's wheelhouse I can't say he does anything that felt as electric or as lively as I hoped it would. The actor isn't so much going through the motions as he's delivering ticks and tricks we've seen from him a number of times before, and as such he never disappears into the role in ways that could have made the character even slightly memorable.

As for the rest of the all-star supporting cast, it's a gigantic mixed bag as far as they all go. Jason Schwartzman and Jon Polito are sublime respectively as an art gallery clerk who belittles Walter's work and a night club owner who finds unexpected profit in showcasing the big-eyed paintings on his venue's walls, while Danny Huston is hard-boiled perfection as a San Francisco gossip columnist who unexpectedly becomes a big part of the Keane ruse. But Terrence Stamp is shockingly wasted as New York Times art critic John Canaday, while Krysten Ritter at first looks like she's going to have a meaty part as Margaret's best friend DeeAnn only to disappear and become oddly unessential just as things get interesting.

I applaud the fact Burton attempts to play against type and expectation. I like that he tones things down, attempts a more procedural-like approach to the material that eschews the surrealistic Charles Adams meets Rankin and Bass meets William Castle esthetic he's typically so fond of. But stripped of much of his artifice, eschewing his usual cartoonish tendencies, he ends up making Big Eyes look and feel like a nondescript biography anyone without an even ounce of his talent probably could have directed and had it look and sound almost exactly the same.

That's probably unkind, because it isn't like Burton's hand isn't felt. Colleen Atwood's (Memoirs of a Geisha) costumes are perfect, as is Rick Heinrichs' (Sleepy Hollow) superb production design, while composer Danny Elfman (Batman, Beetlejuice) once again delivers a score for the director that's as essential as it is wonderful. Alexander and Karaszewski's script has its fair share of bizarre little flourishes, like Margaret's introduction to Jehovah's Witness, Burton knowing just how to make these moments sing in ways that are undeniably memorable.

I just wish I felt more emotionally attached to all that was happening. Margaret's story is an incredible one, and it's hard to believe it hasn't been told until now. More, Burton, his affinity and reverence for the artist and her work a matter of record, seems like the perfect choice to be the one to tell it. But Big Eyes, for all its moments of inspired whimsy, for as much as it admires and respects the painter, is still oddly lifeless as far as the bigger picture is concerned. The canvas isn't so much empty as it is incomplete, a richer portrait required in order for the Keane tale to rise to the same priceless heights as the iconic paintings which inspired it.


Gambler remake misplays a winning hand
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE GAMBLER
Now playing


English professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) has seven days to pay back almost a quarter-million dollars in debts to some pretty unsavory people. He owes both Mister Lee (Alvin Ing), the cagey operator of a high society underground gambling ring, and Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams), a cold-blooded loan shark looking to use Bennett's collegiate access for his own unscrupulous designs, and as of right now he can't pay back either of them. His wealthy mother Roberta (Jessica Lange) is reticent to dig her son out of another financial hole, letting him know in no uncertain terms that if she does it will be for the very last time.

Forced into a corner of his own making, Bennett turns to Frank (John Goodman), another loan shark with a well-earned reputation for collecting on every debt one way or another. This is the last man the professor wants to owe money to, a fact not lost on either of them, but with very few options and nowhere else to turn he takes the cash nonetheless. In a last ditch effort to extricate himself from this mess and keep those he cares most about - not just his mother but also whip-smart student Amy Phillips (Brie Larson) and collegiate basketball superstar Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley) - safe, Bennett hatches a crazy plan to play Frank, Neville and Mister Lee one against the other, gambling that he's smarter than any of them know and that Lady Luck owes him one after so many losing hands.

A remake of the 1974 James Caan drama of the same name directed by Karel Reisz and written by James Toback, director Rupert Wyatt's The Gambler is a pretty significant change of pace considering his last effort was the mega-budget franchise reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Working from a nervously energetic script from Oscar-winner William Monahan (The Departed), this remake begins with subtly invigorating ferocity, deftly putting Bennett under the microscope as it analyzes his addictions and instabilities while he digs himself a financial grave. It's a glorious start, the first third a bewildering flurry of emotion, chutzpah and self-destruction that adroitly sets the stage for the subsequent traumas to come.

Unfortunately, Wyatt and Monahan can't maintain their focus, presenting things in too transient a fashion, never allowing any of the core characters to obtain a complex dimensionality that would make Bennett's seven-day journey affecting. The emotions driving things are too spot-on, all of them staying right on the surface, the movie never trying to conceal its hand, instead laying its cards openly on the table for all to see. It doesn't push itself, doesn't attempt to go any deeper than necessary, and as such the intensity and visceral despair required to give the drama staying power and a bludgeoning punch is oddly absent for much of the climactic third.

Yet the film is seldom if ever boring, Wahlberg's performance alone so lived-in, so nakedly raw, it in and of itself is almost worth the price of a matinee ticket all on its own. Gaunt, withdrawn and sallow, the actor has given himself entirely over to Bennett, achieving a level of physical transformation that's shocking. He also infuses the character with the right amount of cagey, self-aware confidence, and even as he falls deeper and deeper into his addiction, his attitude remains more one of defiance than it does of despair, the two emotions rubbing one off of the other fueling a survival instinct that's carnally craven in its savage tenor.

Wyatt's remake also looks and sounds terrific, the director's use of music coupled with its anarchic audio design and visual attention to detail giving things a compulsively bellicose attitude that fits the narrative perfectly. He's also given Goodman a wonderful supporting role, allowing the actor to sink in and take over his scenes with a monstrous menace that oozes throughout the theater with timorous pitilessness. Every time he shows up the movie is given a jolt of unbridled electricity that's invigorating, part of me almost curious what a standalone story following Frank for a day might end up looking like.

The problem is that the filmmakers never earn all that it is they are aiming for. Bennett and Roberta's familial strife is almost too nondescript for its own good, and it's a testament to Lange's virtuosity that she's able to wring as much emotion from her few scenes as she does. Worse, his relationship with Amy is unbelievable right from the onset, the gifted Larson stuck playing a thin, one-dimensional character far beneath her talents.

More than that, though, it is the oddly warm, sunnily optimistic climax that really doesn't work, the final scenes feeling much too out of place considering all the self-inflected emotional and physical carnage that's preceded them. Much like its protagonist, The Gambler doesn't know when to quit, a winning hand transforming into one that should have been laid down long before the cards were even dealt.


Heading Into the Woods a worthy venture
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

INTO THE WOODS
Now playing


Into the Woods is one of the greatest extravaganzas Stephen Sondheim ever composed the music and wrote the songs for. That's saying something, if you think about it, considering this is the guy behind some of the best Broadway showcases of the 20th century including West Side Story, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Gypsy and A Little Night Music. But, when you dive right into it, when you analyze all the pieces, his adaptation and eviscerations of the Grimm Fairy Tale library (working with writer James Lapine) is a rather stunning piece of work, taking these fantastical and magical characters and grounding them in a way that feels bracing, authentic and utterly real.

A movie version has been talked about since the moment the show debuted in 1987. Problem is, this isn't warm and fuzzy stuff, Sondheim and Lapine going to some extremely dark corners of the human condition as they look at wishes wished and the consequences going after them without considering the consequences entailed. It isn't nice, it isn't altogether happy, and while many of the characters are ostensibly in a better place when all things come to their conclusion, none of them are entirely pleased about the price exacted to get them there.

This is one of the things that makes it moderately shocking that Walt Disney Pictures, of all Hollywood studios, would feel inclined to allow director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) to tackle the adaptation. Granted, it's not like the Mouse House has been reticent about reinventing their cinematic fairy tale library, both Alice and Wonderland and Maleficent (for all their few plusses and numerous minuses) are ample proof on that front. Still, this feels like an even further reach in many ways, and other than continuing the studio's dubiously rich tradition in regards to mothers and their collective mortality rates, the darkness that invades the later third of this tale is hardly heartwarming.

Yet that climax is also what makes this musical extraordinary. Not only is the music something entirely and completely out of this world, the story composed by Lapine is also a thing of exquisite, intimately detailed beauty. Marshall, embracing all of this and more, goes right for the jugular, never flinching, never stepping back, making the revelations of the final act all the more destructive, yet also enlightening and empowering, in the process.

The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) want a child. The Witch (Meryl Streep) living next door reveals to them she is the reason they cannot conceive, the hideous older woman putting a curse on the man's father years prior for stealing some of her magic beans. For reasons entirely her own, she wants the pair to end the spell, and all that is required is a red cloak, a golden shoe, hair the color of corn, a milky white cow, all of the items hiding in the mystical, ominous woods just on the edge of town.

Thus the adventure begins, the Baker and his Wife on a three-day adventure to find all the items running into the likes of Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), young country boy Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), the lovely maid Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her dashing Prince Charming (Chris Pine) in the process. They learn many things about themselves as well as all they come in contact with, each pining for a better, more fulfilling life, yet none not certain the path they've magically found themselves on is one they should be traipsing down so eagerly.

The movie is a bouncy revelation, a beauteous adaptation of the Broadway stunner that gets better and better as it moves along towards its shattering conclusion. The first half is light and sunshine, mixed messages and missed opportunities obscured by the potential for a better tomorrow and a future steeped in bounty. Then things go off the rails, because just when everyone thinks they've gotten exactly what they've always wanted the bill comes due, proving that success without strife, sacrifice and a whole heck of a lot of hard work isn't worth achieving.

Marshall keeps things moving, the film flying by in what feels like an instant. His control over the tonal changes is stunning, and by the time a second Giant comes lumbering down to earth thanks to an unplanned beanstalk stretching to the heavens, I was completely and totally captivated by all taking place up on the screen. He allows his actors to craft full-bodied, richly defined characters that are oftentimes surprising in their depth, at the same time granting a cavalcade of supremely talented character actors (including Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch and a creepily pedophiliac Johnny Depp) freedom to make the most of their limited screen time in ways that are magnetic.

It's easy to laud Streep, who once again proves she could have made one heck of a singer had she set her mind to it back when she was first starting out; and while she is wonderful, I can't she does anything that is revelatory. The same cannot be said for either Corden, Blunt or especially Kendrick, all three soaring to astonishing heights. They are exceptional, all three of them, each going places and doing things that continually kept me off my guard, eager to discover what they were going to do and where they were going to go next.

A triumph of production design, costuming and cinematography, the movie ends up being as sensational as it is in large part thanks to Marshall's deft staging and handling of the material. While changes have been made, most notably as things apply to the Baker's Wife and to Cinderella's Prince, they end up not having any sort of corrosive effect on all that Sondheim and Lapine are aiming to achieve. Into the Woods is a marvelous, dexterously passionate marvel, the film a fairy tale delight where magic isn't always good and wishes oftentimes should not come true.


Agonizing Foxcatcher an emotional body slam
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

FOXCATCHER
Now playing


Truth is stranger than fiction in Foxcatcher, director Bennett Miller's (Capote, Moneyball) cold, calculating and brutally uncompromising look at the dark side of the American Dream. Working from a calm, defiantly unsentimental script by E. Max Frye (Something Wild) and Dan Futterman (Capote), the movie takes a real life tragedy and makes the horrific and abhorrent lessons born from it universal in all their ugly, edifying glory.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an Olympic Gold Medal-winning wrestler. Yet for all his success at the 1984 games he still lives in the shadow of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic champion, as well as a well-respected wrestling coach the U.S. National Team takes the time to listen to. While the two have an unbreakable bond, Mark can't help but feel the lesser of the two, his confidence continually wavering as he looks for ways to step outside of his sibling's massive shadow.

Enter eccentric heir to a massive fortune John du Pont (Steve Carell). He is obsessed with wrestling. More than that, he is equally driven to win the approval of his hardhearted mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) who views her son as a minor disappointment. Claiming he wants to put America first, saying he wants to see the country's athletes reign supreme at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, he convinces Mark to come to his estate, assemble a team of like-minded wrestlers, and train at his state-of-the-art facility at Foxcatcher Farms. Urged on by Dave, it proves to be an offer too fantastic to turn down.

At first this relationship works wonders; and while du Pont is a little strange, he also proves to be something of a father figure for Mark, helping him build confidence off of the wrestling mat and not just on it. But he also loves playing mind games, toying with the athlete psychologically, building up his insecurities so that he becomes totally reliant upon the multimillionaire. Making things more insane, out of the blue he decides Dave must also come to Foxcatcher to be his 'assistant,' making an exorbitant offer to both him and U.S. Amateur Athletics to make sure he cannot say no.

Miller focuses on these relationships with razor-sharp acuity. He uses the same observational focus that he applied to his previous two dramas, but here it feels even more searing, more rigid and more inflexible. This is a movie that is as lethal as it is ostensibly benign, with a clearly unbalanced du Pont eviscerating convention and platitude every step of the way. It slams the viewer to the ground with the same sort of fury and casual ruthlessness both Schultz brothers were known for dispatching their Olympic opponents with, not caring for a moment if it turns people off in the process of doing it.

The central trio of Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo unleash career-best performances, each giving themselves over completely to Miller's vision, allowing them to cut right to the center of their respective characters. Tatum has never been this open, this naked with his emotions, almost as if he's an infant trying to navigate the ways of the world trapped in an adult body he's barely capable of controlling. As for Carell, his is a steadfast portrait of self-importance mixed with a healthy dose of self-doubt and a seemingly unending supply of insecurity, making his mind games and manipulations all the more unnerving in the process.

Then there is Ruffalo. On the surface, he's got the more straight-forward role to play, the honest and upfront Dave, the kind of guy who shows you who he is right away, never apologizing for doing so. But his principled, family-first take on life does nothing to mask his intelligence, nor does it hide his ability to immediately sum up a person for who they are and potentially also who they have the possibility of someday becoming. At the same time, because of his success both on and off the wrestling mat, he believes he can handle any and all situations as they arise, and even when things start going sideways, never once does Dave believe he's losing control. It's a glorious performance, Ruffalo grounding things in a way that is deep, personal and always authentic, the tragedy and horrors to come becoming all the more devastating in large part thanks to his brilliance.

The movie struggles a little when it strays away from this central trio, Sienna Miller particularly wasted as Dave's loving wife Nancy. At the same time, Foxcatcher is so mesmerizing, so consistently fascinating even its missteps don't feel as unbalanced or as unfortunate as they otherwise might have been. As a director, Miller once again shows himself to be a steely, confidently perceptive filmmaker who knows how to bring out the best in his actors while also generating emotional responses from the viewer they might not have known were possible before watching. Make no mistake, this is one of the year's best, and arguably most important, films; see it at once.


Problematic Unbroken fails to inspire
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

UNBROKEN
Now playing


Joel and Ethan Coen have won four Academy Awards, two of them for screenwriting (Fargo, No Country for Old Men). William Nicholson has been nominated twice (Shadowlands, Gladiator) for his screenplays, while fellow scribe Richard LaGravenese has one Oscar nod (The Fisher King) under his belt, the duo two of the more well-respected writers in Hollywood. Collectively, this is a powerhouse foursome, and it's hard to imagine how a film shepherded to the finish line by all of them could meet without anything close to failure.

All of which makes Unbroken, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand chronicling the staggering, inspirational life story of Olympian and WWII Japanese prison camp survivor Louis Zamperini, all the more vexing. One note, frustratingly didactic, beating the viewer over the head with its melodramatic histrionics, the movie is oddly superficial, reducing the man's complex, incredible history into nonchalant talking points reeking of mawkishness. More, director Angelina Jolie seems obsessed with focusing on her central character's suffering at the hands of his captors and little else, never making the attempt to make any of the supporting players, whether they be fellow Allied soldiers or Japanese guards, complex or three-dimensional, thus cheapening Zamperini's story in the process.

In some ways this shouldn't come as a surprise. Jolie's first directorial effort, the Serb-Croatian war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, was also focused upon suffering, on depicting man's unspeakable inhumanity to man in as intimate and as blood-curdling a fashion as possible. But where that film was suited to such an exacting and, admittedly, exhausting approach, this one feels mutated and belittled by it. Zamperini's story is as complex as it is Byzantine, traveling in seas of grey, making right and wrong feel like an illusion and survival an almost impossible dream. By reducing his story to platitudes Jolie, along with her cadre of supremely talented screenwriters, have taken the soul right out of it, leaving an almost paint-by-numbers biopic that's so transparent in its intentions and dramatic designs it might as well not even exist in the first place.

Yet everyone here is far too talented to deliver a motion picture that is entirely unwatchable. The opening sequences depicting Zamperini's (played perfectly by rising star Jack O'Connell) job duties on a B-24 bomber are something to behold, filled with tension and emotion as the bombardier navigates along a fractured catwalk trying to help his unit complete their mission and get back home. There are also some glorious bits during his 47-day ordeal trapped at sea stranded with a pair of fellow soldiers, a scene involving a shark getting into their life raft particularly strong.

But once Zamperini ends up in Japan things go from being slightly unfocused to frustratingly tedious, the final hour nothing more than trauma upon trauma, suffering with more suffering, pain and sorrow followed up again and again by more of the same. Which, honestly, would be okay if Jolie and company had spent the time to build up any of the other characters instead of leaving them as ephemeral symbols of right and wrong with nothing in-between, the fact the film refuses to do so beyond annoying. What could have been a strong variation on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence for today's audiences instead becomes nothing more than a boring, heavy-handed war polemic that does nothing new and even less that's interesting, everything so nondescript and blasé even the traumas suffered by the hero feel more benign and unrealistic than they obviously were.

O'Connell is terrific as Zamperini, while veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, Prisoners) once again does sensational work as far as the elegantly composed visual look of the images themselves are concerned. Alexandre Desplat's (The Imitation Game, Godzilla) understated, suitably subtle score is also excellent, never overshadowing the depicted actions, instead going out of its ways to augment each and every scene no matter how transparent emotionally much of them end up becoming. While difficult to watch, I did like Jolie's directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, and felt she showed a huge amount of promise behind the camera. I actually thought she was a fine choice to pilot this particular ship, her sensibilities feeling, at least to me, to mirror much of the same style and methodology Hillenbrand approached Zamperini's story with in her best-selling biography.

But sadly, the movie just doesn't cut it, reducing Zamperini's story to its base, most basic elements, taking away from it all of the shading and color that inherently made it so powerful and inspiring. His rise as an Olympic athlete falls flat, as do scenes of him on the home front as a young hellion put on the path of the straight and narrow by his loving older brother. As for the prison camp sequences, the less said about those the better, what few authentic moments there might be drowned in a sea of pap and pabulum bordering on insufferable. While Zamperini lived an amazing life worthy of respect and admiration, Jolie's recounting of it doesn't do it anything close to justice, Unbroken shattering into so many pieces I'm flabbergasted just how much a waste of time this film proved itself to be.


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2014 HOLIDAY CALENDAR
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Northwest News
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LETTERS
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Madonna releases new singles ahead of album
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Burton's Big Eyes oddly lifeless
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Gambler remake misplays a winning hand
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Heading Into the Woods a worthy venture
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Agonizing Foxcatcher an emotional body slam
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