Jan 28, 2015


One expects the worst emotional torture from a movie about the ISIS menace, and if you've been on a diet of simplistic, good versus evil American movie tropes, Timbuktu may mess with your head, but Abdehrrahmane Sissako's magnificent film is a rare gem. It unfurls delicacy and humanity, and even gentle humor, to express its profound outrage about the barbarism of the perverted Islamic rule of ISIS.
Sissako looks at Mali's misfortune with ruthless compassion. He and female screenwriter Kessen Tall do not make the ISIS soldiers into the embodiment of evil. Some are ignorant, but some are smart and speak several languages. Some use their power to try to further their personal agendas, like getting a bride (one shyly, one by force). Some intercede to try to curb the fanatical religious harassment of their neighbors. Others relish the power they can only wield by joining such a cult. They are all guided by unshakable conviction in their warped, life-denying principles. Sissako aims to provide a glimpse of what it is like to live under such insane rules, both for the enforcers and their victims.
He subverts the jihadists by deliberately countering the sensationalist effect of ISIS' appalling violence with a day to day portrait of life under their rule. Sissako refuses to give them free publicity with their thirst for blood, which just gives them more power and sows more fear.
Instead, we witness truly heroic day to day defiance in the courageous stand of a woman fishmonger who refuses to wear gloves, as per ISIS's absurd dictates; through a group of young people who continue to play beautiful Malian music in their home when music is forbidden, or youths who play imaginary soccer, because soccer is forbidden too.
Sissako has a keen sense of the surreal, and an equally firm grasp on reality, which gives Timbuktu the depth of poetry. His sense of humor is almost shocking, under the circumstances, but his ribbing of their ridiculous rules is moving and revelatory. In this world, a Tuareg family of shepherds lives in tents, but owns a cellphone. The jihadis are gadget crazy, and, in a very funny scene, try to make propaganda videos to convince the people of Mali to renounce their normal lives. This world seems as distant as another planet, yet people are up to date with the latest soccer scores. However, they are left to deal with the horrifying invaders on their own. No one protects them. They fight, not with violence, but with stubborn defiance.
Sissako resorts to violence a handful of times. He understands that less is far more shocking than more. But the violation, the humiliation, the privation of dignity and liberty of the inhabitants of Timbuktu are faced with every day is the greatest violence of all. This movie manages to destroy you and uplift you at the same time. It finds some solace in humanity, but ends with a devastating image, a truly powerful reminder that inaction and submission guarantee a future of endless, irrational terror.
Timbuktu is Mauritania's entry for the Academy Awards, and it it is a formidable contender. A remarkable film.

Jan 24, 2015


Xavier Dolan's winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes (he shared it with Godard's Goodbye To Language in 3D) is nothing like it sounds. A recently widowed mother, Dianne, also known as Die (the fierce Anne Dorval), has to pick up her teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon, amazing) from a detention center and and take him home because no one else will have him. She is a mess: rude, potty mouthed, unemployed, and as unfiltered and undisciplined as Steve.
Dolan frames the story in the near future, in which Canadian law could allow parents to relinquish their pathologically unruly children to the state with no further legal review. And believe me, during the first 10 minutes you will be rooting for her to do just that. Steve is impossible. Fitfully charming, grating, violent, chaotic, no school or social setting will abide him. But he is not one of those dark kids with homicidal tendencies, like the Newtown or Columbine murderers (perhaps because he doesn't go to school). He is just more than a handful, in the care of a mother who is a handful herself. They've both been on a tailspin since they lost Steve's father to illness. They feed on each other's passionate chaos.
In less inspired, confident hands, this film would be a bitter or too saccharine pill to swallow, but Dolan, who is only in his mid-twenties, is a gifted filmmaker. He elicits spectacular performances from his actors. Even with a 1:1 aspect ratio, which is a perfectly square frame, Mommy is so beautifully shot that two seconds into the movie you forget the format. And in fact, this intimate shape helps convey the isolation, the narrow focus that is required to live with someone who cannot really function in society. The camera and editing are fluid, kinetic and masterful. A sequence in which Steve unleashes his chaos as he arrives home is handled so well, you feel like you are in the room, engulfed by two human tornadoes, and you don't know what just hit you until it's over. But Dolan also achieves moments of tender grace. This fierce story of maternal and filial devotion will test your patience, give you hope and break your heart in equal measure.
Dolan does not shy away from big dramatic gestures as he burrows into the heart of sorrow, chaos and relentless energy which is to be Steve and Die. He introduces a third wheel, Kyla (the excellent Suzanne Clement), a lonely neighbor with a mysterious grief of her own, who completes their family at the expense of her own.  Mommy surprises at every turn with its self-assured intensity. One can see the poetic gesture in awarding the Cannes Jury Prize to the old Godard and the young Dolan, for Dolan has the verve and the inventive cinematic flair of the young Godard, but, less in thrall to sheer intellect, he dives deep into waves of emotion.

Jan 15, 2015

The Oscars SUCK

They have always sucked but this year they suck more. This year, they are not even trying with the pretense of inclusion. They are going mostly for the safe, the well trod, the boring. Except for the actress nominations and some of the technical departments, it's an all male, mostly white dudes cast. I am the last person to clamor for affirmative action in art. But this is dispiriting. Because this year deserving women like Ava DuVernay and Gillian Flynn are shut out for no good reason. Safe, well-meaning biopics like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything replace better, more hard-hitting, but less palatable movies like Foxcatcher, A Most Violent Year, or even Gone Girl.  Yes, some original, independent-spirited movies like BoyhoodWhiplash, Selma and The Grand Budapest Hotel made it, but it is not enough. A cause for concern should be that Hollywood has to rely on indies or British films to fill up ten slots. A dismal year for American movies.

Below is the list of nominations.
The ones in bold are the noms I consider well deserved. And those who unfairly did not make it. In blue, my favorites.
In red, my predictions for your Oscar pool. The categories that have no red, I have no idea about. 
If you win the pool, you give me half, if you lose, which is far more likely, I'm not responsible.

Best Picture
Birdman - Fun, fantastic movie.
Boyhood - Yes, and should win.
The contest is between the navel-gazing ego fest of Birdman, Hollywood talking about itself, which the Academy loves, or the lack of ego and sustained excellence of Boyhood. It's a tough call, but if the Academy members are not utterly depraved, they should vote for Boyhood.
Selma - Yes, however grudgingly and ungenerously it made it to the list. It's being shut out of virtually everything else except that stupid song at the end, which nearly ruined the entire movie for me. This sole nomination feels more of a consolation prize than a deserved nod. Selma should have gotten nods at least for Best Actor (David Oyelowo), Best Director (Ava Du Vernay), Best Screenplay (there's a fight about who really wrote it), Score (by Jason Moran) and Costume Design. It seems that the Selma team completely mishandled their p.r.; the greatest irony being that DuVernay used to handle p.r. in Hollywood before she became a director. It's a damn shame because this is a good and important movie, at a time when more people need to remember this story.
The Theory of Everything - Yawn. It's a good movie but not a great one.
The Imitation Game - Yaaawn. Both are classic, safe choices for the retirement community. If we go for British biopics, Mr. Turner kicks their ass.
The Grand Budapest Hotel - lovely and surprising, and I'm happy it's here.
American Sniper - Haven't seen it, but Clint Eastwood is the most overrated person in the world.
Whiplash - Yes! A damn good film. Original. Bracing. Spectacular.
Foxcatcher could have been included, as well as Gone Girl. But they are too dark for these losers.

Actress in a Leading Role
Julianne Moore,  Still Alice - She is fantastic.
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything - She rocks in this movie.
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl - she is very fine.
Reese Witherspoon, Wild -  She tries, but is totally lacking in depth.
Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night - Freaking amazeballs. 
The contest here, I think, is between the illness du jour, as portrayed by Julianne Moore, and La Cotillard, who is a monster actress. Between Alzheimer's and the beleaguered working class of the world, I think they'll go for Alzheimer's. It hits closer to home.

Actor in a Leading Role
Michael Keaton, Birdman - He is very good, I love him dearly, but I think there are others more deserving.
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything - No doubt, he is awesome.
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game - No doubt, he is wonderful. Also, he seems to have more fun than any other celebrity, so that's why I'm rooting for him. None of my favorites are in this race.
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher - Excellent.
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper -  I'm sure he's good. 
But where is David Oyelowo who so convincingly portrays Martin Luther King? Where is Ralph Fiennes, who is miraculous in The Grand Budapest Hotel? Miles Teller was brilliant in Whiplash, but he has been thoroughly ignored because he plays an asshole. Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year? Even Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher. I'm tired of actors not being recognized for subtle work.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu,  Birdman - A tour de force.
Richard Linklater, Boyhood - A bigger, quieter tour de force.
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel - Absolutely.
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game - Pat, predictable, just decent. Instead, James Marsh of The Theory of Everything. 
Instead, Ava DuVernay for Selma. It is appalling that she is not in the running.
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher - Well done. But instead, Damien Chazelle for Whiplash.

Actress in a Supporting Role
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood - If there is justice, this will happen.
Emma Stone, Birdman - She is wonderful in this film.
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game - Very good but instead, Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods - She is becoming the Queen of Good Hams. Let's just give her an award each year and call it a day.
Laura Dern, Wild - She is better than the entire movie.

Actor in a Supporting Role
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash - probably and deservedly the winner.
Edward Norton, Birdman - I LOVE him in this.
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood - Great but not as great as Arquette.
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher - Great.
Robert Duvall, The Judge - Have not seen him, but he always kills.

Foreign Language Film
Ida - A wry, fantastic film about the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Leviathan - A wry, fantastic film about living with corruption in Russia.
Tangerines - Have not seen it.
Wild Tales - Have not seen it.
Timbuktu - This is a poetic, sweet, and surprisingly funny film about Islamic fundamentalists (!) 
I doubt that the members of the Academy actually watch the films so they may want to punish Putin, they may want to extend an olive branch to Muslims, or, and this has been known to happen, vote for the movie that has something to do with the Holocaust. They are all deserving. 
I can't believe Force Majeure is not in the running. Or Two Days, One Night. Or The Wonders.

Writing – Adapted Screenplay
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game -  Defanged, sentimental version of the life of Alan Turing. A travesty. 
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash. How is this an adapted screenplay?
Anthony McCarten, The Theory of Everything. He has a scene of applause in the end which I will never forgive.
Jason Hall, American Sniper
Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice - Gets brownie points for trying to adapt Pynchon. 
Where is Gillian Flynn's smart adaptation of Gone Girl

Writing – Original Screenplay
Richard Linklater, Boyhood 
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, Birdman
I think the script is the weakest link in this movie.
Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, The Grand Budapest Hotel - Lovely.
Dan Gilroy,  Nightcrawler - Creepily funny, but I don't buy the contrivances of this script.
E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, FoxcatcherA well written American nightmare. 
Selma should be in this category but it isn't because of an unfortunate conflict over writing credits. Too bad.

Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman
Roger Deakins, Unbroken
Robert D. Yeoman, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dick Pope, Mr. Turner
Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lynzewski, Ida
All of them utterly deserving.

Music – Original Score
Hans Zimmer, Interstellar - Tries to make it sound like something exciting is happening.
Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game  - Desplat at his schmaltziest.
Johann Johannsson, The Theory of Everything - Nice score
Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel - Why nominate him twice? This one is the keeper.
Gary Yershon, Mr. Turner
In general, I don't care. None of these scores (I have not seen Interstellar) made an impression. 
Jason Moran's score for Selma was lovely. The big band score for Whiplash too. Both should be here.

Makeup and Hairstyling
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy


Costume Design
Colleen Atwood, Into the Woods -  I hated the drab, pedestrian costumes.
Anna B. Sheppard, Maleficent - I'm sure this rocks.
Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jacqueline Durran, Mr. Turner
Mark Bridges, Inherent Vice
Selma should be here.

Music – Original Song 
“Glory” by Common and John Legend, Selma 
“Lost Stars” by Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley and Nick Southwood, Begin Again
“Everything Is Awesome” by Shawn Patterson, The LEGO Movie
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” by Glen Campbell, Glenn Campbell: I’ll Be Me
“Grateful,” by Dianne Warren, Beyond the Lights

Visual Effects
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
Captain America: Winter Soldier
X-Men: Days of Future Past

Documentary Feature
“Last Days in Vietnam”
“The Salt of the Earth”
“Finding Vivian Maier”

Film Editing
Sandra Adair, Boyhood
Tom Cross, Whiplash
William Goldenberg, The Imitation Game
Joel Cox and Gary Roach, American Sniper
Barney Pilling, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Sound Editing
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
American Sniper

Sound Mixing
American Sniper

Production Design
Into the Woods - No imagination.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game - Meh
Mr. Turner

Short Film – Live Action
Boogaloo and Graham
The Phone Call

Short Film – Animated
The Bigger Picture
A Single Life
The Dam Keeper
Me and My Moulton

Animated Feature Film
Big Hero 6
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Boxtrolls
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Song of the Sea
Why is The LEGO Movie not here? Everyone loved it.

Jan 12, 2015

The Golden Globes Are Gone

I'm gonna miss Amy and Tina so much. They were great last night. I loved their jokes, from their explanation of cake and birthdays to Hollywood, to Clooney's achievement award, to going after Bill Cosby, to "who would you rather"? I could play that game all night. There should be much more of them and less lengthy oversharing acceptance speeches, some of them craftily designed already to tug at Oscar voters' heartstrings.
Question: If a person of Korean descent, (Margaret Cho) spoofs a North Korean dictator, not because he is North Korean but because he is a clueless, overreacting asshole, why is this racist? I thought that it was funny that the character had valid opinions about movies. Are we to pretend that North Koreans don't have Korean names or look Korean? I need elucidation.
Fashion-wise, it was the year of women wearing either tablecloths, as my friend Katya says, or bathing suits. Naomi Watts and the flawless Lupita Nyongo were the best dressed for me.
Apparently, the HFPA, or as I like to call them, the HPV, has taken it upon itself to be the anti-Oscars by championing less safe stuff. Their awarding Boyhood is right. Boyhood is an original and beautifully realized film, an impressive achievement. It's less commercial, and less award-y than the usually awarded fare. I don't think that The Imitation Game nor The Theory Of Everything deserve to be in the category of best picture. They are too safe, and very award-y. They bring nothing but wonderful acting to the party. I really liked Foxcatcher, a nightmare of a film, and Birdman, but I think the only other serious contender for best film in this category is Selma.
Winners are in bold:

Best Motion Picture, drama
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

For some reason, Mr. Turner, a fantastic movie, was snubbed even by the BAFTAS, which I think amounts to treason. It is better than the other two British biopics. Is there a Mike Leigh backlash going on that I don't know about? 

Best Motion Picture, musical or comedy
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Into the Woods
St. Vincent

The good thing about the Globes, as Michael Keaton pointed out, is that they recognize comedies. It's a tough choice between Birdman and TGBH, two strikingly original movies, but I am with the HPV on this one. Birdman is fun and exhilarating, but not very coherent, which is why I disagree with its win for best screenplay, a category which should have included Selma.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is not only about Europe, which may be close to the HPV's heart, but is also a lovely, subtle balancing act of humor and sadness.

Best Director, motion picture
Ava DuVernay, Selma
David Fincher, Gone Girl
Richard Linklater, Boyhood - No question. Everybody in this category has vision. His is vision squared.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Actress in a motion picture, drama
Jennifer Aniston, Cake
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything - She was my favorite.
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild - Should not be in this category. Marion Cotillard instead. 

Best Actor in a motion picture, drama
Jake Gyllenhall, Nightcrawler
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
David Oyelowo, Selma - This is an incredible performance and I hope someone recognizes it.
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything - Unimpeachable. Well deserved. It's my own fault that I get bored with the My Left Foot school of award giving. 

Best Actor in a motion picture, musical or comedy
Michael Keaton, Birdman - No one can argue with loving Keaton and wanting him back. He's great.
Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel - My favorite, in a funny, melancholy tour de force.
Bill Murray, St. Vincent
Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice -
Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes - I thought he was strangely terrible in this. My nomination would have been the unsung Miles Teller in Whiplash. 

Best Actress in a motion picture, musical or comedy
Amy Adams, Big Eyes -   This category was no great shakes. Amy Adams is very good in this movie, but I do not think an acceptance speech is an opportunity for sharing intimate details about someone else's rented uterus. Or whatever that was.
Emily Blunt, Into the Woods
Quvenzhané Wallis, Annie
Helen Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey
Julianne Moore, Map to the Stars 

Best Foreign Language Film
Force Majeure (Sweden) - I love this movie.
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Israel)
Ida (Poland/Denmark) - I love this movie.
Leviathan (Russia) - Great movie and a provocative political choice, since it is a tough satire about corruption in Russia.
Tangerines Mandariinid (Estonia)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood -  A righteous win for a lovely, nuanced performance. And best speech of the night.
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood

Edward Norton, Birdman - I loved his performance. I want to see him in everything.
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash - As expected and deserved. 

Best Animated Feature Film
Big Hero 6
The Book of Life
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2 -  
Can this choice be more boring?
The LEGO Movie

Will Boyhood be a foregone conclusion at the Oscars? Stay tuned. If you can stand it.

Jan 8, 2015

A Most Violent Year

This film by J.C. Chandor is all about the gray areas, something quite uncommon in American movies.  It is also most uncommon for American movies to have a Latino protagonist (played by an actual Latino actor who speaks Spanish perfectly), but that doesn't make a big deal about him being Latino (no piñatas, no mariachis, no extended family, just a guy who is integrating to the American Way Of Life). This may seem like a small thing, but it isn't. More movies like this need to be made.
The great Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales (Abel, like the guy in the Bible, with a very moral last name), an ambitious businessman who owns a heating gas company in New York in the 80s.
He is expanding his business, buying some dilapidated docks in Brooklyn from Orthodox Jews that will give him a huge advantage over his competitors. Meanwhile, his drivers endure violent attacks: someone is stealing his trucks. The world of gas peddlers is apparently not very genteel. They try to screw one another by hook or by crook. Abel refuses to play dirty or even arm his drivers so they can defend themselves. He refuses to touch a gun. Meanwhile, the deed to the new property comes with a deadline. He needs to get the money to pay for it within 30 days, and the pressures mount.
Abel is married to Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father, we learn, is a mafioso from Brooklyn.
Abel seems all rectitude, even with his camel hair coats and a junior pompadour a la John Gotti. Anna is more of a moll and more of a loose cannon. I was happy to see Chastain playing a vamp. She also wears a coat like a suit of armor, she chain smokes and is far more volatile than her husband. She keeps the books, and for all of Abel's efforts to remain squeaky clean, she seems to be cooking them. A district attorney (the ubiquitous David Oyelowo) has a bunch of claims of fraud against the Morales. So what gives? Are they kosher or not?
We think we are watching a film about the mafia, but we are watching a film about business, which is like the mafia but more legal. Ruthlessness is built into entrepreneurship; what Abel refuses to be is illegal. We root for him to get what he wants, if anything, because he is so convincing. Isaac plays him with a recognizable nod to Michael Corleone (that is, young Al Pacino), but my filmgoing companion was convinced that Isaac is also channelling Barack Obama. His deliberateness, his calm under pressure, and a certain hauteur convey someone with power; in his case, someone at the cusp of power who knows how it is supposed to walk and talk.
Julian (Elyes Gabel), one of Abel's drivers and a personal protegé, gets roughed up by hoods who steal his truck. Unlike Abel, Julian does not have a spine. He is the weak link in the story, even though he is pivotal to the plot. His storyline feels contrived. He is there to be the foil and opposite of Abel, but the stitching shows. He is the only character who does not have the sangfroid of the brisk business people around him. He freaks out, he sweats, he panics and he screws everything up. Nothing wrong with that, except that Gabel is not at the level of the rest of the otherwise perfect cast; he seems to belong in a more histrionic movie.
Why is it that American movies have such a hard time camouflaging the mechanics of plot and character? Leviathan, a Russian movie and a similar dark tale of ambition, presents characters as people, not as plot devices. A Most Violent Year is a riveting movie, but it falters when it gets schematic. Bradford Young's cinematography is yellowish, opaque, and in many scenes, too dark. It fails to emulate the dramatic chiaroscuro of the Godfather movies as well as the genuine grit of the New York movies of Sidney Lumet, both of which it seems to pay homage to. Bradford Young did a stellar job with Selma, so I think that this is a problem of style getting in the way.
Chandor takes his time to introduce Abel's world, and when the violence of the title comes, it comes in shocking spurts. This is very well done, and a chase scene, reminiscent of The French Connection, is truly ironic and suspenseful.
In the end, Abel learns that trying to keep clean as he rises in stature is going to be a lifelong struggle in a world where no one else seems to mind the dirt. All he can try to do, as he memorably puts it, is to take the path that is the most right.

Jan 6, 2015

Big Eyes

Director Tim Burton's Big Eyes is more conventional than his usual whimsical productions. Yet it is a highly unsettling movie about the bizarre real life story of wannabe artist Keane and his wife Margaret Ulbrich, who painted portraits of children with humongous eyes that became popular to everyone with bad taste in the late 60s. Big Eyes is an interesting, if glancing look at art, commerce, hype, taste and dishonesty. Oh, and feminism.
We first see Margaret (Amy Adams) leaving her first husband's home with her young daughter in tow and starting a new life in San Francisco, just as hippies were starting to get hairy, in the late 50s.
It was a brave thing for a married woman to do back then. Margaret starts working at a factory and selling her paintings of big eyed waifs in the park on weekends. Enter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a flamboyant caricature of an artist, complete with beret and striped shirt, who sits in front of blank canvases waiting for inspiration and sells tacky scenes of Montmartre. That these alarming traits were not an immediate red flag for Margaret shows how naive and provincial she was.
Keane encourages Margaret's art and charms her with his exuberance. They get married, she adopts his last name and starts signing her paintings "Keane". At some point, someone expresses interest in one of her paintings, he claims he did it himself, and makes a first sale. It works out really well and Keane just decides to claim the paintings as his own.
Soon it is too late to reveal the truth. Margaret goes along with the ruse. Money is pouring in and her new husband is generous to her and sweet to her daughter. He pretends they are a partnership. But as a man of his times he is also condescending, claiming that people are not that interested in "lady paintings".
Keane is a relentless hustler, willing to sell bad art anywhere. The waif paintings garner notoriety as Keane gets in a fight with the owner of a nightclub (Jon Polito) who allows him to exhibit them on the way to the restrooms. Margaret can't bring herself to set things straight. When she tries to speak out, Keane impedes her. She ends up churning out "Keanes" in secret as he opens an art gallery to exclusively sell "his" work. They make a mint.
The story is unbelievable, but Burton only touches upon themes that beg for more depth. Amy Adams is very good as Margaret, who gets more frustrated and bitter the more successful her paintings are. But in a rare misstep for Christoph Waltz, his Keane is overbearing from his first moment onscreen, and it's hard to be charmed, let alone fooled, by him. What should be a disappointing discovery for Margaret and for the audience that this charmer is a charlatan is not a surprise twist, but a given.
Keane is no artist, but he is a tireless and innovative salesman, and soon he starts printing posters and postcards of his wife's paintings. As we say today, he successfully scales the business.
The mystery of why Margaret allowed this to go on for so long remains unsolved. She evinces an independent streak by starting a new life on her own, so why submit so completely, so unfairly to the lies of a con artist? In the movie, Keane becomes more brazen, more unhinged and more controlling the more success they have, and the better they do, the harder it is to stop, but Big Eyes lets this question gnaw at you long after it is over. The money, and the security that came with it, may have acted as a huge deterrent to put a stop to Keane's increasingly exploitative shenanigans. One can understand all her external motivations: she kept quiet to protect her daughter, to preserve her marriage, to enjoy financial security. It's her internal moral compass that is an enigma. She was a spiritual, religious person who seemed deeply uncomfortable with the ruse, and she had a code of conduct, which makes her compliance all the more baffling. Perhaps what helped is that she didn't seem to have an ego. An ego would have never let such a thing happen.
Soon fame arrives, with the press in tow. They have lots of questions about Keane's art. He has no idea why he paints these children, so he hounds Margaret for motivations, which he deems insufficient as she seems to paint compulsively out of a sad sense of empathy. This is not nearly pretentious or artistic enough for an artist of his stature, so Keane invents a tearjerking backstory for publicity purposes. His vanity has no scruples.
Big Eyes raises a lot of questions. Is it enough to have a purity of purpose and honest feelings in order to be an artist? Yes, but not a good one. Even though Margaret's art is kitsch, it comes from her soul. She employs no calculation, just emotion. Her intentions are pure; her art, terrible. New York Times critic John Canaday (a fabulous Terence Stamp) demolishes Keane's art in public and in front of Margaret. She could hide behind her husband's posturing and feel perversely vindicated; after all, her reputation is intact. But she is devastated. How can anybody say anything so cruel about art that comes from the heart?
Things get even weirder and darker, and quite bizarre, as she finally decides she's had enough of the pretense and sues Keane. He turns from an annoying pest to someone darker, more ruthless, unwilling to let go of the fantasy, and possibly believing his own lie. And she finally grows a pair.
Big Eyes is the strange, sad, astonishing story of two provincials with artistic ambitions, Margaret's driven by heart, Keane's by ego.

Jan 3, 2015


A dark political fable from Andrey Zvyagintzev, this bitterly funny, tragic movie could be interpreted as a modern day retelling of Job's story about a man besieged by fate, lost in the belly of a whale, except in this case, he is besieged by the corruption and impunity of a local functionary who has seized his property, refuses to pay a fair price for it, and intends to build some grand monument in its place in a backwater in the middle of nowhere, Russia.
Winner of best screenplay at Cannes, Leviathan is not only a chronicle of the destructive powers of unimpeded graft, but also a look into a culture which harbors a dangerous combination of powerlessness and recklessness. This may be the movie where individuals drink the most in the history of cinema. Their shots of vodka are downed in 4-ounce glasses filled to the hilt. They chug vodka by the bottle. But then again, there is nothing else to do in this nameless northern town, home to fish packing factories, boat and whale carcasses, and abusive local authorities.
Zvyagintzev takes his time introducing us to his characters: Kolya, a car mechanic and volatile heavy drinker, who is not a bad man, his younger, unhappy second wife Lilya, and Kolya's ornery teenage son, Roma. Dima, a friend from Kolya's army days, comes all the way from Moscow to help Kolya defend himself against Vadim, the corrupt official who has all institutions in town, including the arrogant patriarch of the local church, in his pocket.
Because these people are human, they do all kinds of fucking up on their own besides trying to fight Vadim, which helps him destroy them and makes it a far more interesting movie than if they were just in a righteous crusade for justice (that would be the American version). Kolya built his house on a hill overlooking the bay with his own hands, it has been his family's land for generations, but Vadim cares not for roots, history or people. He uses a combination of drunken threats, the misapplication of the law, and their own recklessness to get them out of the way.
Before it turns tragic and appallingly ironic (in the real world impunity always wins), much fun is to be had observing local custom. Policemen who drive and shoot target practice while drunk out of their gourds (with children running around, to boot), teenagers with nothing to do but drink inside the ruins of an old church, women that counsel others not too drink so much while pouring them another hefty glass, and the ridiculous theater of bureaucracy in the guise of endless laws, articles, codes and paragraphs completely perverted to serve power, a sham designed to trick people into thinking they live in a lawful country.
If this is not a parable about life under Putin, I don't know what is. Mystifyingly, the movie got made with governmental support, which means that either the censors are idiots, or Putin wants to show the world that there is some sort of freedom of expression in Russia.
Leviathan is a fantastic movie. Anybody who has ever lived under brazenly corrupt regimes will understand in their bones the combination of frustration, exhaustion, outrage and ultimate capitulation that these Russian folks experience. You laugh until it sobers you up.

Jan 2, 2015


Ava DuVernay's Selma is an epic movie on an intimate scale, a sobering, moving account of how Martin Luther King, the last great leader this country has seen, compelled a reluctant Lyndon Johnson to give Black people the right to vote. Focusing on the period after the murder of four little girls in a church bombing in Alabama and the marches from Selma to Montgomery, it chronicles Dr. King's leadership and the toll his non-violent methods took on him, as well as the effect they had in getting the president to enact legislation.
David Oyelowo's towering performance as King, supported by a uniformly splendid cast, anchors the film with dignity and humanity. He gets the cadence and oratorial charisma of King's speech perfectly, but he also embodies his moral authority and shrewd intelligence. He is burdened by the enormous impact that each one of his decisions has on everyone, from his family to the fate of Black people, but he is also a practical strategist. He understands the power of the political theater of marches on hostile ground, as well as the fact that marches are not enough; the laws have to change. In a pivotal scene in which marchers are attacked by state troopers, he witnesses the violence without intervening, because he knows that this display of cruelty by the authorities helps his cause. He alternates protest with legal challenges and emerges as a skilled tactician.
The film also portrays some of the divisions within the civil rights movement, namely, the resistance of the Selma students who had been leading the movement locally, and King's opposition to his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) meeting with Malcolm X, who had called him, among other ugly things, an Uncle Tom. King's fabled infidelities are exploited by J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to try to cut a rift in the Kings' marriage. The portrayal of King as an extraordinary leader is tempered by the acknowledgment of his personal failings and a sense of humor, but Selma hails him as the great hero he was and recreates the incredible courage that he and those marchers had in risking their lives for their rights. I was unconvinced by Johnson's pretexts not to act on voting rights, and some historians are up in arms about his portrayal as an antagonist instead of a staunch supporter of King and his movement, but it is not altogether a negative portrayal.
The elegant script by Paul Webb and an uncredited DuVernay is mostly faithful to facts and avoids inventing characters for dramatic purposes. Most, if not all of the characters in the movie are historical figures. The movie is more a recreation than a fictionalization and it is very powerful.
I don't know why it seems to be law that British actors portray Southern characters in American movies, but all the better for us. Besides Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson is great as Lyndon Johnson and Tim Roth is perfectly despicable as Alabama governor George Wallace. Excellent African American actors like Oprah Winfrey (also a producer), Lorraine Toussaint, Wendell Pierce, Colman Domingo and others round up the cast. DuVernay directs with great restraint. Bradford Young provides epic camerawork, and Jason Moran a powerful, understated score.
Even as it ends in the triumph of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the final march from Selma to Montgomery, the movie reminds us that even with all this sacrifice, and despite some of the important gains of the civil rights movement, there is still a long way to go for racial equality in this country. Despite the uplifting finale, it is a devastating film.