January 31, 2015

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). The wackiest entry in the Indiana Jones trilogy is also the most interesting one. It’s full of bizarre elements pieced together as though George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had raided a shelf full of late-Victorian adventure novels and then ripped out random scenes from each. Harrison Ford is quite good here, looser and more relaxed, maybe because he could sense the insanity that was occurring onscreen. The movie opens with an opulent musical number that showcases the curves of its ingénue, Kate Capshaw, whose performance as Willie is an enormous insult to womankind. Willie is what you’d get if you took a bunch of shallow romance novels and culled them for every stereotypical characteristic of the female sex. She screams frantically throughout the film, bitches and moans about broken nails, and asks natives in a small Indian village if there’s a telephone. How such a stupid character could exist says a lot about the filmmakers’ views on women. And yet, what of Marion Ravenwood, the much stronger, much more interesting heroine in Raiders of the Lost Ark played by Karen Allen? Moreover, what of the handful of scenes where Kate Capshaw is actually allowed to be charming or coy? (Such as the scene in the hotel, when she and Indiana Jones have a flirtation.) And then there’s Short Round, Indiana’s orphaned sidekick, who possesses an insatiable glee for the madness this little troupe experiences as they travel through the Asian jungle (searching for a lost rock with allegedly supernatural powers). He’s actually not the most annoying kid to appear in a Steven Spielberg film, and in fact I found him rather likable, especially when he laughed off the grotesquely exaggerated absurdity of Kate Capshaw’s character. The film’s violence and gore offer, of course, another fascinating layer. In one scene, we see a man’s heart being ripped out. It’s not as graphic as say, George Romero’s Day of the Dead, which premiered a year later and has plenty of ghastly gore sequences, but because Temple of Doom was rated ‘PG’ by the MPAA, there was some controversy over the film’s more intense sequences and the fact that children had such easy access to them. (1984 is the year in which the MPAA first issued the 'PG-13' rating.)


Sunshine (2007). Danny Boyle’s ode to Alien and any number of other science fiction films is an effective and grim enterprise. It’s set in the near-future, when the sun is dying and life on earth hangs in jeopardy. Several years before the movie takes place, a spacecraft, the Icarus, was sent to blast a payload of nukes into the sun to try and revitalize it. That craft and her crew have not been heard from since, and now a new team must repeat the journey aboard the Icarus II. Only this time, there can be no mistakes. The payload aboard the Icarus II is the last of its kind, apparently due to the earth’s depleting resources. The crew should have known better than to name either one of their space ships after the boy who flew too close to the sun and then died. But Boyle of course cannot resist such an allusion, and we are filled with grim expectation as the movie pounds away, and bad situation after bad situation confronts the characters. We are filled with the stark realization that no good is going to come of this. As grim as Alien’s plot is, I always have a good time watching it, perhaps because I know that the entire survival of the planet isn’t at stake. But Sunshine, like too many films of late, must experience conflict on only the grandest of scales. In the last third of the movie, Boyle introduces a particularly strange (and none too well explained) plot element involving a possibly supernatural presence on board the ship, and at that point I stopped caring entirely. The performances, however, are convincing. The cast includes Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Troy Garity, Cliff Curtis, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Benedict Wong.


Aliens (1986). Director James Cameron gives Alien the blockbuster treatment, pumping it full of action and his signature brand of dumb, occasionally successful humor. Cameron brings back Sigourney Weaver, the survivor of the first film, this time accompanying a squadron of Marines to the planet where her ill-fated crew discovered the alien eggs in the first movie. That planet has since been colonized by humans, blissfully unaware of the lurking danger. The expected aliens vs. people action ensues. There’s not as much subtlety this time around, and the film works you over pretty thoroughly. But Cameron also humanizes Ellen Ripley by awakening her maternal instinct: she discovers an orphaned girl (Carrie Henn) hiding from the aliens in an air vent. As big and dumb as much of it is, Aliens is an effective thriller with at least a few terrific little nuggets of dialogue; its shortcomings (including a murkiness that sometimes makes it impossible to tell what’s happening onscreen) are bolstered by Sigourney Weaver’s command of the screen. And the film ratchets up the distrust of capitalism that the first film introduced, by introducing a corporate sleazeball (Paul Reiser) who wants the mission to salvage some of those slimy aliens for profit. (Weaver gets to say the film’s best line to him: “I don’t know which species is worse: you don’t see them trying to f*** each other over for a percentage.” With Michael Biehn, Henriksen, Jeanette Goldstein, Bill Paxton, and William Hope. Written by the director. Music by James Horner. Produced by Cameron’s Terminator collaborator Gale Ann Hurd.

January 25, 2015

The Year of Living Dangerously

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, and Linda Hunt in her Oscar-winning role, is proof that the 80s were capable of thoughtful movies about something more than eye candy and materialism. The film is a languid romance/political drama set in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1963 amidst a Communist coup and the political re-alignment of President Sukarno’s regime. Gibson plays Guy Hamilton, an Australian journalist who’s sent to Jakarta as a correspondent and who, with the help of a Chinese-Australian photographer named Billy Kwan (Hunt), accumulates some surprisingly good stories for his frequent radio broadcasts. Billy Kwan, a dwarf, is an idealist who wants more Westerners to take notice of the wretched living conditions of the people in Indonesia. As someone who’s spent his life on the margins of society, Kwan has developed a deep-rooted compassion for the oppressed and the disadvantaged. He thinks Guy can help bring awareness to the plight of people in Jakarta, but Guy is more interested in what a good story can do to advance his career than how he can help bring about lasting social change. He’s also distracted by Jill (Weaver), a woman working for the British embassy. Weir, who along with David Williamson adapted Christopher Koch’s novel, falters somewhat with the romance. It’s never passionate enough, and neither Gibson nor Weaver is given much compelling acting to do together. (But they are both very good, and Gibson--whatever one may feel about him nowadays--proves himself a strong leading man.) 

Peter Weir is far more interested in the social message of his film, thus making Linda Hunt’s character Billy the real heart—and conscience—of the movie. But Weir’s film taps into a genuine compassion, rather than a shallow kind of self-serving “awareness." The movie rings true and is very thoughtfully made, so the slightly under-developed (or maybe it's just unsatisfying) romance between the two Westerners actually fits; Weir gives a healthy examination of the Western presence in Asia (just as E.M. Forster did in his effective novel A Passage to India), and in a way, the Hollywood romance aspect of the film deflates the idea that Westerners will come and save Asia from themselves. The film isn’t that far off from Richard Lester’s Cuba, which pitted Sean Connery and Brooke Adams against the competing Castro and Batista regimes during the 1959 revolution in Havana. The Year of Living Dangerously is definitely worth seeing. (And it’s a fabulous title.) With Michael Murphy, Bill Kerr, Noel Ferrier, Bembol Roco, and Paul Sonkkila. The terrific, effective music score is by Maurice Jarre. Filmed mostly in the Philippines.

January 24, 2015


Movies are at their most powerful when they have their way with us, invading our consciousness in a way that only movies can. To insist that people experience films (or any other art) only on the basis that it is educational and socially important, sours the experience and sometimes limits the visceral, unmitigated power of movies. And when people treat a movie as a sacrosanct historical document, the act of going to see it can turn, quite unexpectedly, into a passive, self-serving political statement. “You have to see American Sniper because it’s a tribute to the troops.” “I liked The Help, therefore I am not a racist.” It can feel like any criticism of such films makes you somehow un-patriotic, or worse yet, un-American (a quality that would certainly not endear you to the likes of American Sniper’s hero). However, I will resist the urge to badger you and demand that you see Selma, a film that I absolutely loved, on the basis of its historical or social importance. (Although, it is indeed important in both of those aspects, among many others.) Undoubtedly, Selma will make its way into American History classrooms across the country in the coming years, but for regular movie-going people, it can still be treated as a movie, not just a corrective historical diorama. These two things can be equally important, making it difficult to separate the historical importance of the film from the art of the film. But I will attempt to do that anyway.  

Selma pulls you into its world in an emotionally direct way. Scenes of real injustice and tragedy, such as the 1963 bombing of a black church in Alabama (which left four girls dead) are shocking, disturbing, heartbreaking, and provide the necessary jolt of anger and urgency that, I think, is representative of the 1960s and the way people really did feel. The writer-director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, knows how to ratchet up the right amount of empathy from the audience without milking us. In the hands of the wrong director, Selma would be content in its moral certitude. In DuVernay’s hands, Selma is urgent and bold and even hopeful. It’s beautifully made without seeming too careful. 

DuVernay has received a lot of flack for her alleged twisting of historical facts, namely a mischaracterization of President Lyndon Johnson. DuVernay tacitly owned up to this accusation by playing the “I’m-an-artist-I-don’t have-to-be-historically-accurate” card. But, allow me to take a moment and list every historical film I can think of in the next 30 seconds that has been accused of deliberately twisting facts: Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Paul Berg’s Lone Survivor, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, the HBO mini-series John Adams, Disney’s Pocahontas, Oliver Stone’s JFK, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and all those other Jesus films where Jesus is played by a pasty-white British guy—he may as well be offering the Disciples some tea and crumpets—and every big-studio movie about the Roman Empire in which the actors brandished English accents. So what’s the answer? Do we rail against filmmakers who don’t adhere to, as Dickens put it in Hard Times, “the facts; just the facts”? Or do we realize that it’s not Hollywood’s job to be 100% accurate in historical films?

The answer lies somewhere in-between. There is no formula to nail down how to respond to these movies when they ignore or manipulate facts for their own purposes. Fiction does not have to be dishonest. Good fiction speaks truth in the most invented moments. And if we approach historical films in this way, I think we’ll be better served by the filmmakers who are doing honest work even when that work wouldn’t necessarily fly as gospel truth. (Isn’t it our responsibility to know the facts anyway?) In Selma, a movie that gets so much of the tone of the civil rights movement right, I’m not all that worried about the portrayal of LBJ (played in the film by Tom Wilkinson, who’s very good as usual). Johnson doesn’t come off that badly. DuVernay depicts him as a shrewd politician who knew that racial equality was morally right, even though he didn’t always want to deal with it or with Martin Luther King’s constant insisting for swift and sweeping federal action.

Here’s an interesting fact: Selma is the only piece of narrative film that’s ever been made directly about Martin Luther King. Is that surprising? People are up in arms over the lack of Oscar nominations for Selma, but perhaps we should be more concerned that it took this long to get a movie about Martin Luther King made in the first place.

And it’s a knockout of a movie. The performance of David Oyelowo as King is surely one of the best performances of the last year. Oyelowo’s power on screen carries Selma, and would have saved it even if it had been a total disaster. The way he spins a phrase of dialogue or belts out a compelling speech—many of which could be rendered cheesy or ineffectual if uttered by the wrong actor—is a marvelous thing to behold. Oyelowo has such conviction, such strength, that one feels captivated by him. He makes it clear how the movement needed a man like King, who may have been arrogant and flawed, but who possessed a sure-footed vision for progress and an unwavering belief in his own dignity.   

Duvernay doesn’t shy away from King’s infidelities and their effect on his wife, Coretta Scott King. (She’s played by Carmen Ejogo, who gives an equally strong performance.) And then there’s Oprah, who co-produced Selma and who appears in a supporting role as Selma resident Annie Lee Cooper. The movie opens with Cooper bravely walking into the Selma courthouse and applying for a voter registration card. The sleazy government flunky behind the desk denies Cooper her registration after she fails to name all 67 judges in Alabama. (Cooper does manage to produce the number, as well as recite the Preamble to the Constitution from memory; but this isn’t enough to satisfy Selma’s rigid, racist policies.) I have to wonder if Oprah doesn’t enjoy playing frumpy poor women since she’s so wealthy herself. (I’m reminded of Marie Antoinette, who thought the poor were so enchanting that she pretended to be a rural housewife, to the point that she had a little cottage built and a field to “work in.” It’s sort of like having your very own working-class-themed amusement park.) But Oprah is very good, and she gets some moments of triumph, like when she stands her ground amidst the hostile insults of a redneck police officer. And God bless her for helping to get this movie made.

Finally, regarding the Oscar controversy: Selma was nominated for Best Picture and Best Song, but none of the performances were nominated. David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo deserved to be recognized by the Academy for their work. Nobody can change that now, but just thinking about their fine portrayals of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King makes me happy that this movie exists and hopeful about future projects for these two performers and for their director. Every year the Oscars manage to ignore good people and good movies (like The Immigrant, which got nothing). Julianne Moore still doesn’t have an Oscar. (Although that will hopefully change this year.) And let’s remember that Forrest Gump once won the Oscar for Best Picture. If that’s not a travesty, I don’t know what is.

Selma was photographed by Bradford Young; music by Jason Moran; with: Common, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Wendell Pierce, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Lorraine Tousaint, Colman Domingo, Keith Stanfield, Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Trai Byers, Stephan James, Omar Dorsey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Ledisi Young, and Jeremy Strong.

January 18, 2015

American Sniper

“There’s an evil out there I’ve never seen before,” says Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL whose biggest claim to fame is a reputation for having killed 160 people (confirmed) during his multiple tours in Iraq, a record for Americans who aren’t mobsters or serial killers. (Kyle claimed in his memoir that the number was much higher: around 255, although this is unsubstantiated.) Kyle’s driving force is the idea that pure evil exists out there in the world, and it’s his job to locate it and destroy it, to protect all that is good. And all that is good turns out to be America and Americans and the American way of life. That’s the driving force of the film American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, based on Kyle’s memoir, and starring Bradley Cooper as Kyle.

Clint Eastwood is a talented but also a calculating director, and he fashions American Sniper like a video game. (Or perhaps video games have simply caught on to military maneuvers, and they now just mimic each other. I hear that American Sniper is quite accurate militarily-speaking.) There are two scenes that particularly stuck in my memory, both of them involving Chris Kyle having to decide whether to shoot children who have come into contact with extremely dangerous weapons. These two scenes feel particularly manipulative coming from a movie that so fixates on the “pure evilness” of the people we’re fighting in that part of the world. There is no attempt to understand Iraq beyond a kind of primeval distrust and fear of its people and their culture. They are Eastwood’s supreme bogeys, and this is his Iraqi Chainsaw Massacre.

Eastwood deliberately simplifies the political and moral angles of the war in Iraq in order to isolate and thus elevate the experiences, gritty, harrowing, and stupefyingly violent as they may be, of American soldiers in Iraq. The movie ignores questions of why we were and are in Iraq, disregards the cultural differences at the root of our conflicts in the Middle East, and conveniently forgets that America might share some of the blame in those conflicts. Perhaps Eastwood feels these grey areas would complicate his own mission, that of elevating Chris Kyle to the status of unquestionable American hero.

To a degree, I want to be on board with the moral logic of a movie like American Sniper and a man like Chris Kyle. I would love to think that war is as simple as “good verses evil.” But I know this not to be true, and so, to insist that it is, constitutes a dangerously happy lie, one that made me very depressed last night at the screening. American Sniper holds your attention, but it’s the kind of movie you don’t want lingering in your mind. The images are haunting, and the lie behind the movie is perhaps even more so. So yes, it’s effective, and yes, you’ll get your money’s worth if you want intense, apparently very accurate, dramatizations of the Iraq war. You’ll also get your money’s worth if you want to project some hero worship onto Chris Kyle, martyr to the cause. His story is heartbreaking; he is in some ways a hero. But to lionize him in this way, without fully exploring the damage done to him by the things he saw and did, is to ultimately dehumanize him and the many men and women who’ve gone to war.

The closest the movie comes to having an emotional core is its skimming of the surface of PTSD. We see Chris Kyle, finally home from his tours, sitting in his living room staring into the TV, which isn’t on; he’s looking past the TV, the memories of combat constantly replaying themselves in his mind. He’s a war zombie, seeing and feeling nothing, utterly zonked out, yet unable to forget the atrocities he experienced and enacted, unable to still the turbulent storm inside himself. Sudden loud noises make him jump, triggering an ingrained instinct forged by the ugliness and the tragedy he’s witnessed and in which he’s participated. But the film doesn’t ever deal with his PTSD directly. Kyle’s wife begs him to open up, but he refuses. He’s stubborn during a session with a psychiatrist. And when the shrink asks him what’s troubling him, Kyle replies that he’s bothered by the lives he can’t save because he’s at home, no longer serving his country. This is where Eastwood wants to trap us into equating killing with patriotism. Suddenly, Chris Kyle is supposed to be a modern-day Oscar Schindler, who bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t save more Jews. So the inner-conflict that Kyle suffers when he must point his gun at a child carrying a bomb is buried beneath the false notion that all patriotism is sacrosanct, all killing justified in the heat of battle. I can absolutely understand the character, and the man himself, wanting to bury this inner-conflict. But the fact that film does so is troubling beyond belief.

Instead, Eastwood conjures up as many violent interplays between American soldiers and Iraqi terrorists as he can, all of them a ringing reminder of both Chris Kyle’s prowess as a sniper and a chilling, horrifying visual encounter with an experience most of us will thankfully never have to remember. Movies about Iraq are for most of us the only immediate way we can experience what it was like for those who were and are actually there, engaged in the turmoil.

But what kind of message does a film like American Sniper send to say, a young boy who’s in love with the hyper-macho heroics of this Chris Kyle worship? We get Kyle’s own philosophy about the evils of the people in the Middle East. We get no measured exploration of the very complicated history between the Middle East and the Western world, and the ways in which our own country has done wrong, has many times been the aggressors, has acted as though we are the only country that matters.

There is much to be said for the effectiveness of American Sniper. Eastwood knows how to put the screws on the audience, and this film is nothing if not compelling. The movie’s two hours move fast, the scenes of conflict are truly disturbing and well-made, and Bradley Cooper is absolutely believable in his role. He masterfully captures that jock personality you’d expect from a Texas-born Navy SEAL, and he shows us the amount of mental effort required for Chris Kyle to keep all the hurt inside himself, an island of deep anguish. (His wife, played by Sienna Miller, suffers untold agonies trying to bring her husband back.)

If this movie makes you thankful for the sacrifices of American soldiers—and their families, who surely suffer in a magnitude of ways that do not end when, or if, their loved ones make it back home—great. But do we need lies to feel gratitude? Do we need oversimplifications, and platitudes about the Greatness of America, to love our country? And why must our love of country stamp out all consideration for a shared human experience that reaches across national lines? We are indeed a long way from fully understanding the Middle East or reaching any kind of peace in that world. And yes, there is evil there. But what of our own pernicious, subtle evils? American Sniper brings us no closer to examining these, and further entrenches the “us versus them” mentality that feeds the divide between our two cultures. 

January 15, 2015

Inherent Vice

A tagline for Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice theorizes, “if you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there.” That’s the project of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation: to dramatize the disembodied, drug-addled incoherence of an entire decade. The film takes place in 1970, and its star, Joaquin Phoenix, plays a private investigator named Doc Sportello (no stranger to recreational drug use himself). Doc is hired by his ex-girlfriend to check out her wealthy current lover’s wife, who may be plotting against him with her boyfriend. Doc’s investigation quickly gets derailed by all sorts of problems and strange encounters, and it isn’t long before he’s pitted against a conservative, hippie-despising L.A. detective played by Josh Brolin.

The plot—which is constantly being subordinated by the mood and the tone Anderson has worked so very hard to convey—sounds like a promising film noir, particularly one of the 1970s noirs, such as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. The Long Goodbye is a cynical revision of the 1940s detective thrillers, showing us a Philip Marlowe who wasn’t the knight in shining armor, unless he was maybe a Don Quixote, oblivious to the reality that he no longer mattered. In a sense, this film may be Paul Thomas Anderson’s attempt to ape the style of Altman. But he isn’t as precise. Perhaps the film is too successful at what it wants to do: Its loose structure will either charm you or put you to sleep. (I fell into the latter category.)

I can only admire the craft and the intentions of a film like Inherent Vice for so long. Once that initial feeling of appreciation faded away, I began to look around the theater, check the time, and wonder how much longer my imprisonment would last. (The film runs two hours and 30 minutes.) But it’s not just the fact that Inherent Vice turns out to be a colossal bore of a movie. It’s also pretty dismally unfunny, and Anderson tries very hard to be funny at times. (There are a few minor laughs, but far too many scenes attempting comedy completely misfire.) Phoenix gets knocked around a good bit, and there are moments of outlandish chaos filtered through the relaxed vibe of people too zonked out on mind-altering dope to actually be as zany as Anderson would like. The director possesses an exuberant love of hippy culture, a culture he clearly aims to defend by showing us the moral decay of its enemies. But, in order to remain true to the overall feeling of Pynchon’s novel (one which I am guessing can be summed up in that earlier quote about not remembering the 1960s), Anderson has to ultimately hold himself a kind of hostage to nonsense. He takes a few cues from The Big Sleep there, because nothing in that movie made much sense either. But damn if it wasn’t entertaining and fun from beginning to end.  

Part of the problem is the film’s tendency to dump information on the viewer while doing so in a lulling sort of way. Characters appear and divulge more and more apparently unimportant information, as none of it ever really adds up. When Doc visits a mental institution—where his ex-girlfriend’s lover has been spirited away by his greedy wife and her boy toy—there’s not a feeling of discovery, of revelation. It’s just one more speed bump on a hazy drug trip. The scenes that Anderson shapes are calculated to appear crazy, weird, and disjointed, but nothing in this movie amounts to anything, and Anderson seems to be defying us to challenge him on this, since aimlessness is his raison d'etre. But who cares if the movie's no good?

I really liked Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood. I felt admiring of The Master—and more interested in it because it seemed to be about something more than this—but Inherent Vice’s lackadaisical structure just doesn’t work for me. Now, there’s always the possibility that such a structure will appeal to some viewers, especially those who aren’t expecting some kind of rip-roaring pot-boiler ala L.A. Confidential (which is a much more exciting, plot-driven L.A. noir.) Then again, there are loosely structured movies that I really adore, such as Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. But that film had a mood that was much more effective. It takes place in the perpetual night world of two vampires, and is set to a lot of silky, pulsating rock music. Jarmusch captured a mood with absolute precision. Anderson is going for a similar “nothing-is-happening-everything-is- happening” feel here, but he can’t quite achieve it. Anderson is in many ways a stronger director when his material is about something. He needs an idea to shape that is more concrete than what he gets from Thomas Pynchon. And yet, Inherent Vice has the distinction of being far less self-important than either There Will Be Blood or The Master.

I will say that one day I’d like to revisit Inherent Vice, and see if the movie doesn’t improve with a second viewing, free of the tyranny of expectations. But for now, I’m not only unconvinced, but hugely disappointed in a movie to which I was looking forward for months. (Also, I really hated the narrator's childlike, twangy, fake-serious, extraordinarily grating voice.)

With Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Benicio Del Toro, and Maya Rudolph. Written by the director.

January 02, 2015

The Fury

Of all the thrillers Brian De Palma made in the 70s and early 80s, The Fury holds the record for being the wackiest. Its loosey-goosey story involves youths with telepathy who are targeted by a secret government agency. The Fury has a terrific music score by John Williams. Williams’s music elevates the supreme goofiness of De Palma’s movie. (It was right around the time he was composing scores for Star Wars and Superman, and the influence is obvious, although the music is still distinct. It’s beautiful, emotionally big and evocative, and compelling.)

Kirk Douglas plays Peter Sandza, an ex-CIA agent whose son Robin (Andrew Stevens) has psychic abilities that the government wants to harness. So, they kidnap Robin after attempting to kill his dad while the two of them are vacationing somewhere in the Middle East. Then the film jumps a year ahead, to Chicago, where Amy Irving is strolling along Lake Michigan with her girlfriend, studying for an upcoming test. Irving’s character, Gillian, has the same kind of psychic powers as Robin, and a man—also possessive of these abilities—has procured her for the desperate Peter, who’s hoping Gillian can help him track down his son. 

Robin, it turns out, is being held by the afore-mentioned ominous government agency, pacified by a sexy psychiatrist (Fiona Lewis) while the government tries to exploit him. Gillian makes several psychic connections with Robin when she goes to stay at the Chicago-based Paragon Institute, a facility that reaches out to people with these kinds of gifts. It’s run by two apparently sincere scientists played by Charles Durning and Carol Rossen, who know Robin because he stayed there once too (briefly).

The government learns of Gillian’s powers just as Peter does, so that it becomes a race to see who can get to her first, and whether or not Peter can track down his son and rescue him from the manipulative clutches of the powers-that-be.

I took the time of explaining the oddball plot of The Fury to point out that Brian De Palma, perhaps more than any director working in his genre in the 1970s, was a filmmaker committed to a kind of madcap expressionism. The movie glides along to that wonderful John Williams score, soaking in the sights of Chicago, humming along with all its bizarre plot points, and as illogical, incredulous and half-baked as much of it is, the thing is a hell of an experience. It’s not as iconic as Carrie, nor as freaky as Dressed to Kill, but it’s alive with energy, and De Palma pulls sincere performances out of everyone in the cast. The movie falls apart in the end, but fans of such genre-tripping nuttiness should definitely give this freak-out of a horror film a try. It's wonderfully cynical and made with an exuberant love of the genre. There are also some bonkers special effects—especially at the end—featuring bodily explosions. (These youths have a lot of pent-up energy.)

With Carrie Snodgress, John Cassavetes, Joyce Easton, Rutanya Alda, and, in bit parts, Darryl Hannah and Dennis Franz. Screenplay by John Farris (adapted from his novel).  

January 01, 2015

Big Eyes

Tim Burton’s film Big Eyes is an account of the artist Margaret Keane (played in the film by Amy Adams), whose signature mark was the wide, exaggerated-looking eyes of her subjects, most of which were children. In the 1960s, Keane’s then-husband Walter (played by Christoph Waltz) took credit for her work until Keane divorced him and took him to court, finally revealing to the world that she was the real artist behind the paintings rather than her slick, salesman-like husband.

The film opens in suburban California, where Margaret Ulbrich (later Keane) is hurriedly packing her belongings and fleeing her banal existence with her young daughter in tow. She divorces her husband (we’re never sure why), and mother and daughter find themselves virtually alone in San Francisco, where making a living as a single mom—in 1958—appears to be almost impossible. That’s when Margaret meets a fellow artist named Walter Keane. They’re both trying to sell paintings at an art show, and Keane makes a move by complimenting the naïve, unconfident Margaret on the quality of her work.

Big Eyes has a kitschy feel to it. Of course, this was the 1950s and early 60s, when America—at least as it’s realized in our collective nostalgia and imagination—seemed to be in love with kitsch, with artificiality, and the veneer of the starched, clean-cut American family was just that: a veneer. Tim Burton has always loved kitsch, but now it feels forced and hollow, where films like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood had something underneath the kitsch: real personal filmmaking. Unfortunately, Big Eyes misses that personal touch.

Margaret Keane is in many ways an ideal choice for Burton’s continuing “exploration” of American kitsch. (Which is why it’s so disappointing that he completely misses the mark in this movie about her.) Keane’s work—according to the film at least—was constantly being scrutinized by critics as faux art, appealing to the masses because of its crudeness. But Burton isn’t interested in exploring this aspect of the story. He uses these negative assessments of Keane’s work to take the all-too easy shot at critics. Actually, Terence Stamp, playing the oldest and snootiest art critic in the movie, does get an amusing line when Walter Keane screams at him in public that critics are incapable of creating art: “That musty chestnut?” (Perhaps Burton fixates on critics so doggedly because his own work has been met with so much negative response over the last fifteen or so years). Burton engages with the negative criticism merely to enshrine his subject, Margaret Keane, in a museum exhibition of victimhood. There’s no doubt how the director feels about this art, and yet there’s no vitality to his passion, no real proof of what makes him love it so much. This is a treatise on the fact that Margaret Keane originated the paintings, not a defense of their value or why these paintings deserve to be remembered.

Whether or not the movie is absolutely truthful, it turns Margaret Keane into a passive wimp. (And it forces Amy Adams into a muted, restrained performance that feels like a real disservice to her as an actress, especially when she’s one of the best actresses working in movies today.) Yes, the film opens with Margaret as an active agent: She leaves a marriage that is apparently unhappy (and perhaps unhealthy) and starts a new life for her daughter and herself. She gets a job. She pursues her love of painting. Good so far. But once she meets Walter Keane, she turns into a devoted, silently-suffering Stepford wife, going along with a scheme that hurts her tremendously, even though she’s smart enough and strong enough not to cower so willingly.

As Margaret’s “Big Eyes” art becomes astronomically successful, the lie she’s living begins to weigh her down. But the film is so set on Margaret Keane as victim that even when she starts standing up for herself it feels hollow and unsatisfying. Burton occasionally applies some tiresome narration to round out the plot for us, such as at the beginning, when the narrator reminds us of the plight of women in the 50s, as though this were an excuse for Margaret’s prolonged cooperation in fraud. The film never makes a convincing case for why she’s quiet about her husband’s deception for so long, when it seems that there are numerous opportunities for Margaret to reveal the truth and improve her own situation.

Big Eyes does become more interesting in the last round, but only because we’ve invested so much time in hating Walter Keane for being such a pompous, manipulative ass. Christoph Waltz seems to be having fun playing such a slimy individual, but he becomes downright cartoonish in the big courtroom scene where the judge demands that both he and his ex-wife paint to see who’s actually telling the truth.

In his love for this artist (Burton apparently even commissioned a Keane painting back in the 90s), Tim Burton has lost sight of making a convincing movie. The film is incredibly uneven. It’s by turns a very conventional biopic, a creepy study of public manipulation, and a weird courtroom farce. These tonal shifts feel utterly surprising and even chaotic, especially one scene where a drunken Walter chases Margaret and her daughter into the art studio and then begins tossing lit matches inside through a very wide keyhole, eventually igniting the carpet thanks to some conveniently placed turpentine—which the feeble Margaret herself knocks over. If this is supposed to be a movie about the dignity of women and the unfairness of their plight in times past, it hardly feels worth the trouble.

With Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman (who plays a snooty gallery owner and who utters the film’s funniest line), Terence Stamp, Madeleine Arthur, and Delaney Raye. Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.