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Tim Burton Recovers His Mojo with “Big Eyes”

by Alejandro A. Riera

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Some time ago, in fact in my review of “Dark Shadows,” I suggested that the time had come for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to go their separate ways for awhile as their collaborations were beginning to run on empty.

I suggested that such a separation could help recharge their creative batteries. Based on their latest individual projects, it seems to me that Burton may have benefited more than Depp from the split. For while in the past two years Depp has appeared in two critically panned films —“The Lone Ranger” and “Transcendence”— Burton has delivered two very personal, very entertaining and very touching films: the animated “Frankenweenie” (based on an early animated short) and “Big Eyes.”

Some critics rightfully consider “Big Eyes” to be a companion piece to “Ed Wood,” Burton’s and Depp’s second collaboration. Both films celebrate —in Burton’s point of view— two underrated and eccentric artists whose work catered to the lowest common denominator because, as one character puts it in “Big Eyes,” “what is wrong with the lowest common denominator? That’s what this country was built on.” Ed Wood and “Big Eyes” protagonist Margaret Keane genuinely believe in the power of creation. They embrace it. Both are outsiders in their respective fields: Ed as a purveyor of low-budget genre fare in the 1950s (his “Plan 9 from Outer Space” was once considered the worst movie ever made and is now considered a cult classic) and Margaret the author of hundreds of paintings of women and children staring out with huge black eyes in the 1960s. Margaret, however, had to contend with her era’s sexism, a period when women who created anything were looked down upon.

A product of that pastel-colored suburbia Burton depicted so well in “Edward Scissorhands,” Margaret (Amy Adams) leaves her abusive husband behind and, with daughter Jane, hightails it to San Francisco where she hopes to make a name for herself as an artist. She initially makes a living by painting designs in a furniture factory and by drawing kid portraits at local art fairs. She meets fellow artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) at one of these fairs. He is suave, charming, a gentleman. He claims to have studied art in France. And he sees potential in her work.

Totally enthralled by this man, and in danger of losing her daughter, Margaret marries Walter. He soon begins to market their work around town and convinces the owner of a nightclub to let him stage an exhibit of their art work near the club’s bathroom. Only Margaret’s work catches the attention of the club’s patrons and, after a much publicized barroom incident, people begin to flock to the club to see the work. Walter starts claiming his wife’s work as his own (since she signs it only as Keane). “From now on, you and I are the same,” he tells her with a wolfish smile and Margaret meekly goes along with the ploy. Walter soon puts all his marketing skills to work, concocting phony stories about his inspiration and background while Margaret churns one painting after another. Sales take off; Walter opens a gallery and starts the mass production of her work as posters, postcards and other merchandise. The paintings are met with scorn by critics and art patrons, yet they sell like hot cakes.

Margaret may have been a willing accomplice at first, but the charade soon begins to take its toll as her husband gains in stature while she toils alone in the studio, lying to her friends and family. And when she begins to paint in a different style, you can feel the artist slowly but surely reclaiming her space. Her ordeal eventually ends in the courts.

Amy Adams is magnificent as Margaret: restrained and poignant, you can feel her frustration, despair and guilt as she tries to maintain appearances as well as her quiet joy as, brush in hand, she begins to draw the first lines of her next work. But Waltz nearly steals the film as the smooth-talking, snake-oil selling, overbearing, repugnant Walter. Waltz’s performance in the courtroom towards the end of the film is so comically outrageous, it plays almost as a tribute to a similar scene in Woody Allen’s early comedy “Bananas.”

But the film is so much more than a biopic or a pas de deux for Adams and Waltz. The Keanes’ story gives Burton, the “Ed Wood” scriptwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski the opportunity to address issues of equality, discrimination and repression, of the eternal struggle between art and commerce and between low art and high art. They do so without ever preaching to the audience; these themes are an intrinsic part of the story, what gives it its meat, its substance.

Other than a sequence in a supermarket where Margaret hallucinates that every customer has her paintings’ big eyes, Burton keeps his trademark surreal touches to a minimum. In doing so, he acknowledges that the story itself is bizarre enough, that it does not need any visual hijinks to tell it. He trusts the story, something he has not done in a very long time. And that is a very good thing. Burton has recovered his storytelling mojo…for now.

“The Hobbit” Trilogy Ends with Neither a Bang Nor a Whimper

by Alejandro A. Riera

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It’s over. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” brings to an end an overextended tale that could have easily been told in two films as Mexican director Guillermo del Toro originally conceived it before leaving the project.

The final chapter of this sometimes exhilarating, always frustrating trilogy is evidence of that. It never reaches the giddy heights of “The Return of the King,” the final installment of the much better, more heartfelt, “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It even pales next to the trilogy’s previous chapter “The Desolation of Smaug.” Nothing in “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” compares to that wonderful cat and mouse game between Smaug and Bilbo in the last film (a scene I never get tired of watching every time “The Desolation of Smaug” is shown on cable TV).

“The Battle of the Five Armies” begins right where “The Desolation of Smaug” left off: with the dragon’s wanton destruction of Laketown. This opening sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film by giving equal weight to spectacle and a rather simplistic depiction of the human foibles that lead to or result from war. For ten minutes we see characters act heroically or cowardly, driven by greed or compassion. Voiced magnificently once again by Benedict Cumberbatch (in a less mannered and more nuanced performance than the one he delivers as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”), Smaug meets his end at the hands of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), setting the stage for the titular battle.

Elves and humans set their sights on the gold stashed inside The Lonely Mountain, home of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, and an army or orcs seek to take over the Mountaiun, given its strategic value for their evil lord Sauron. Inside the mountain and the kingdom of Erebor, Thorin’s (Richard Armitage) small army of dwarves prepares for battle even though they are outnumbered.

Blinded by greed, Thorin will listen to neither rhyme nor reason, whether it comes from Bilbo (Martin Freeman) or from Bard who asks, on behalf of the habitants of Laketown, for remuneration for the damage caused by Smaug. Thorin has succumbed to the same disease that afflicted his grandfather and his father before him that led to the downfall of their kingdom. He has even grown paranoid as he begins to doubt his fellow dwarves’ loyalty. As Thorin, Armitage delivers an understated, even introspective, performance that almost gets lost amidst the noise and the plot complications.

Meanwhile, in Dol Guldur, home of the Necromancer (Sauron’s true identity), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), last seen imprisoned inside a cage, is rescued by three cast members of the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy: elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee in full ass-kicking Count Dooku mode). Gandalf knows he is running out of time and rushes back to the Mountain. Joining the fracas: Dain Ironfoot (Billy Connolly) and his army of dwarves. And from the top of a nearby mountain, guiding his growing army of orcs as if he were the Middle Earth version of General George S. Patton, stands Azog the Defiler, with whom Thorin has some history.

Thorin’s struggle with his “dragon disease,” and the gathering armies and power players behind them are not the only narrative threads director Peter Jackson and writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and del Toro (although I wonder how much of his input made it into this final chapter) weave into this tapestry. There is also the unrequited interspecies romance between elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, given little to do but mope, compared to the more Amazonian creature of the prior film) and dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). Jackson also offsets the grimness and doom with some intentional, and unintentional, humor from the likes of Connolly and Ryan Gage as the sniveling, ass-kissing Alfrid. And what about poor Bilbo? Except for two pivotal scenes, he is sidelined throughout most of the film, not even given the chance to bear witness to the events unfolding in front of him.

The battle scenes are spectacular, as expected from Jackson. I personally enjoyed those scenes featuring Azog’s command of the battlefield; I found myself rooting for him instead of the good guys because, frankly, he was a far more interesting, better developed character in this final roundelay. But then, Jackson pulls out of his sleeve a deus-ex-machina that undermines what little excitement or sense of danger he had built up to that point bringing the whole edifice down.

I couldn’t also help but feel a sense of déjà vu watching this epic battle. In fact, we’ve been here before. With “The Return of the King,” Jackson set the bar high for other genre films by managing to conjure drama in the battlefield and making the epic, personal. We cared for these characters partly because we spent far more time with them, their stories were better developed, they didn’t feel like so much padding. Some of that film’s sequences –Legolas gliding up and down and around the giant elephants’ tusks and bodies, bringing them down with his arrows; Eowyn’s heroism in the battlefield– are downright unforgettable. “The Battle of the Five Armies” may have two or two great scenes but nothing with quite the emotional heft found in “The Return of the King.”

“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” a Disaster Movie Dressed as a Bible Tale

by Alejandro A. Riera

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Nothing says wholesome Christmas entertainment than a movie featuring oppression, tyranny, a spiteful and vengeful God, white people in key roles and colored ones as slaves (sex and otherwise) or background decor, ten plagues that wreak havoc on the innocent and a parting of the seas that resembles a tidal wave out of a Roland Emmerich disaster movie.

Seriously, who at 20th Century Fox came up with the brilliant idea of releasing “Exodus: Gods and Kings” in the middle of the Christmas moviegoing season and not on Good Friday which seems to be the most appropriate date?

I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed the film’s technical wizardry and Alberto Iglesias’ Middle East-inflected score, and was mildly entertained by the sheer absurdity of Ridley Scott’s latest enterprise, from the absurd casting of Scottish actor Ewan Bremner as some sort of royal Egyptian scientist and Italian American actor John Turturro as a Pharaoh to the downright silly dialogue. And some of it I found quite offensive, for example the film’s insistence in portraying the villains as effeminate bronzed creatures. Let m put it this way: Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” has nothing to worry about. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” will never quite replace it as the essential cinematic retelling of Moses’ efforts to free the people of Israel from slavery. Although, personally, I still prefer “The Prince of Egypt”, Dreamworks Animation’s 1998 take on the tale.

The script by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian (yep, four writers, a sure sign of trouble) dispenses with Moses’ entire backstory. We are immediately introduced to an adult Moses (Christian Bale) and his brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton) as they prepare for battle. An army of Hittites, according to the Bible one of the most powerful empires of the time, is at Egypt’s doorstep, intentions unknown. Pharaoh Seti orders a surprise attack (Turturro), and a prophecy is made by the local priestess that out of the battle a true leader will emerge. That leader is, of course, Moses, although he downplays his role saving in Ramses’ life during the battle. Were it not for the fact that he has been adopted, Seti would have made Moses the rightful heir to the throne.

Moses volunteers to go to the neighboring city of Pithom to investigate its viceroy’s business dealings and treatment of the Israelite slaves. There, Moses not only uncovers evidence of the viceroy’s corruption but also his own identity: Nun (an underused Ben Kingsley), an Israelite elder, reveals to Moses that he is of Jewish descent.

Ramses is crowned king after Seti’s death and upon finding out Moses’ true heritage, imprisons and later exiles him. Moses eventually makes his way to Midian, where he marries Zipporah (Spanish actress Maria Valverde). Then, on a dark, stormy night, Moses ignores his wife’s pleas and, trying to recover some escaped goats, goes up a mountain God has forbidden his people from climbing. He falls, knocks his head on a rock and when he wakes up finds a small boy (Isaac Andrews) who claims to be God and orders him to return to Egypt and free his people. It takes awhile for Moses to acknowledge that yes, this is in fact God; and so, leaving wife and children behind, he heads back to Egypt where we soon find him teaching Israelites the techniques and strategy of guerrilla warfare.

But this Old Testament God is not too happy with the results and takes matters on his own hands. One plague follows another, in a seamless sequence of events that ends in the now familiar death of Egypt’s first-borns, as Moses is sidelined, defenseless. And this is where “Exodus: Gods and Monsters” truly and tragically comes to life: Scott realistically depicts the horrors brought upon a people by a vengeful God over sins and cruelties committed by their leaders. The digital and sound effects as well as the film’s 3D photography give tactility to these locusts, these frogs, this River Nile covered in blood, this plague. We feel the havoc they are causing.

Yes, Moses’ people are freed and yes, we do get to experience the parting of the Red Sea and Ramses’ army drowning once those waters return as several massive tidal waves. And Scott and his scriptwriters show us glimpses of what’s to come: the Ten Commandments and an elderly Moses setting his sight on the Promised Land. But these final scenes feel rather anticlimactic, in part because we are familiar with the story and in part because the portrayal of these plagues is so spectacularly accomplished that the rest feels like a retread.

For a film inspired by the Bible, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” lacks a soul due, in great part, to a script that seems to take our knowledge of these characters for granted. From Moses to the viceroy, from Ramses’ mother (Sigourney Weaver cashing a paycheck) to Joshua (Aaron Paul), Moses’ right hand man, these characters are less than ciphers. Bale spends the whole movie looking glum, wondering what the hell he is doing there. And poor Edgerton tries really hard to bring depth to his character. Whereas “The Ten Commandments” and “The Prince of Egypt” focused on the at first loving and later antagonistic relationship between Moses and Ramses, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” merely hints at it, giving both Bale and Edgerton little to work with. And it is that personal, political and religious conflict between the two, and God’s subsequent wrath, that gives the story its dramatic heft.

In the end, with its big name cast and spectacular special effects, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is nothing more and nothing less than a disaster movie based on a Biblical tale with a couple of battle scenes thrown in for good measure.

Style Trumps Reese Witherspoon’s Performance in “Wild”

by Alejandro A. Riera

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Ten years ago, author Cheryl Strayed embarked on on one of those journeys of self-discovery Hollywood, and Oprah, love so much by hiking, alone, all 1000+ miles of the Pacific Coast Trail from the Mojave Desert to Oregon. She recorded her experiences in her best-selling Oprah’s Book Club official selection “Wild.”

The big screen adaptation is generating a loft of Oscar “around Reese Witherspoon’s committed performance as Strayed. But beware the hype, for the film, as directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and written by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”) leaves a lot to be desired.

“Wild” starts right in the middle of Cheryl’s journey, as she stops to care for her cracked, bloodied toenails on a mountain top and ends up losing one boot and throwing the other down the cliff while screaming in frustration and anger. The movie then jumps back to the beginning, as Cheryl checks into a motel and prepares for her long journey by packing an oversized backpack. You can tell she has never hiked before and is totally unprepared.

Slowly but surely she makes her way north, subsisting at first on nothing but oatmeal and dry fruit, and hitchhiking occasionally. She is aware that asking for a ride from a male stranger is not exactly a good idea. And yet, the people she encounters along the way are kind and generous. That bloody toenail, a suspicious-looking hunter and a rattlesnake are the only potential dangers she encounters. Then there’s that fox that follows her around; Hornby and Vallée seem to suggest that it is some sort of spiritual manifestation but never quite develop the idea. The fox just could very well be looking for its next meal.

Right from the start, Hornby and Vallée sprinkle Cheryl’s present-day adventure with flashbacks. They offer a glimpse to her apparently happy childhood with mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), who raised her and brother Leif on her own after escaping from an abusive husband and father. We see Cheryl’s contempt as her mother gleefully defends the literary merits of James Michener and her embarrassment as she deliberately looks the other way when running into her mother on campus as Bobbi belatedly finishes her bachelor’s degree. Bobbi’s death of cancer pushes Cheryl over the edge into a life of extramarital sex and heroin addiction. It turns out that the hike is Cheryl’s self-prescribed detox, a way to pull out of the darkness and into the light.

One cannot question Witherspoon’s determination in bringing Cheryl’s story to the big screen. It’s a role that demands a lot physically and emotionally and Witherspoon delivers the goods. She gives equal weight to Cheryl’s character strengths and weaknesses, portraying her as brave, selfish and unsympathetic. But, unfortunately, the movie lets her down by using such techniques as the aforementioned flashbacks and a voiceover to clue us in on her feelings, doubts and motives. They impose a barrier between Cheryl and us that we are never able to climb, keeping us at a distance. They call attention to the mechanics of how the story is being told.

At one point, Cheryl claims to be walking herself back to “the woman my mother thought I was,” but we truly never get a sense of who Cheryl was prior to this journey. Hornby’s script fails to connect the dots: was Bobbi’s death so truly traumatic that it would drive Cheryl to self-destruct? Her decision to embark on this hike is rightfully portrayed as an impulsive one. And yet, I was not convinced by the end results. Was it transcendental for Cheryl? Undoubtedly. Did her epiphany translate well to the big screen. Not really, especially when you compare it to a somewhat similar film, Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours.”

Boyle transformed Arol Ralston’s experience of being trapped in a canyon precipice, his arm pinned down by an 800-pound boulder, into an exhilarating, horrifying, inspiring tale of survival. It featured as many internal monologues (some delivered to a mini video camera Ralston turned on to record what he thought would be his final thoughts) and flashbacks as “Wild.” And yet, we feel that Ralston learned something from his experience. Cheryl Strayed may have finished her journey but in the end, we never get any sense of the lessons learned and what kind of woman will she be moving forward. In the end we ask ourselves, what was the point of this journey?

Dumb & Dumber To delivers the laughs

by leo guerrero

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In my humble opinion, the hardest movies to write are horror movies and comedies because if people don’t get scared or laugh within the first ten minutes, the audience will tune out the movie.

“Dumb &Dumber To” by the Farrelley Brothers is their latest in a long line of commercially sucessful movies, some of which include “Stuck on You” (Matt Damon) and “Kingpin” (Woody Harrelson) that uses the same formula: the main characters go on a quest and the audience goes along for the adventerous ride.

In “Dumb & Dumber To”, Jeff Daniels and Jim Carey reunite as two best buddies Harry and Lloyd, who each try to outprank the other. The opening scenes find the audience seeing Lloyd at a nursing home, motionless for the past 20 years (which explains the gap between the first and this movie) all for a prank so he could pull one over on Harry. The movie kicks in as we discover that Harry had a daughter unknowingly and must go find her as he is in need of a kidney transplant. So here is the quest which take our two heroes in search of Harry’s daughter.

The laughs come quick and the timing is great with these two actors. You would never know that Jeff Daniels is actually a serious actor yet he has great comedic timing along with Jim Carey (who can make people laugh just with his expressions on his face). I give this movie a big thumbs up and another successfully hilarious movie done by the Farrelley Brothers.

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