Movie Review: Justice League

For inSing

JUSTICE LEAGUE 

Director : Zack Snyder
Cast : Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Ciarán Hinds, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Connie Nielsen
Genre : Action/Adventure/Comics
Run Time : 119 mins
Opens : 17 November 2017
Rating : PG

It’s time to join the big leagues: five years after Marvel’s Avengers team made their big-screen debut, the Justice League arrives in cinemas. While Wonder Woman was seen as reinvigorating the DC Extended Universe, it’s Justice League that is deemed the make-or-break moment for the franchise. Read on to see how it stacks up.

After the events of Batman v Superman, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are gathering a team of superheroes to fend off an impending alien threat. The recruits to this group include college student/speedster Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the ocean-dwelling Atlantean Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and a cybernetically-enhanced former college football star Vic Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher).

This team must face off against Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a world-destroying alien warlord who hails from the planet Apokolips and answers to the tyrannical Darkseid. Under Steppenwolf’s command is an army of insectoid warriors known as Parademons. Now more than ever, earth needs Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), who died at the end of Batman v Superman. The heroes must put on a united front as earth faces its doom.

There’s a great deal riding on Justice League, and Warner Bros. desperately needs this one to go over well. The film suffered its share of setbacks during production: director Zack Snyder withdrew from the film after a personal tragedy, with Joss Whedon stepping in to oversee reshoots and post-production. Then, rumour has it that the film’s 170-minute runtime was pared down to 119 minutes, under a mandate from Warner Bros. boss Kevin Tsujihara.

Justice League has a shape, but the seams are readily visible. At times, it feels choppy and fragmented, and it’s clear that quite a bit has been left on the cutting room floor. On the whole, it is a gratifying experience: there are moments that will induce cheers, and the action sequences are fun. The various abilities of the League’s members are realised in creative ways, and the visual effects work is more polished than in some previous DCEU entries, some dodgy moustache removal work notwithstanding.

The overall plot beats are familiar, and Justice League bears passing similarities to numerous recent comic book movies. There’s a motley crew with clashing personalities and astounding powers banding together to defeat the otherworldly threat of a faceless army led by a fearsome warlord.

Bits of backstory for each of the new characters are parcelled out, and one can notice the film trying to shuffle along from point A to point B. Tonally, there are some jokes that stick out as being a little unsubtle, but in trying to course-correct from being self-serious and morose to a little lighter on its feet, Justice League takes a few steps in the right direction.

 

Batman is no longer the irrational, weary, rage-driven character seen in Batman v Superman, but it’s to Affleck’s credit that it doesn’t feel like someone altogether different was swapped in. We see how the events of the earlier film have changed Batman’s attitudes, and witness him attempting to be a team player. It’s a bit of a shame that Affleck seems to be looking for an out, since he’s growing into the role nicely. He’s also got cool vehicles including the tank-like mecha Knightcrawler and the Flying Fox transport plane, which should sell a healthy number of toys. Geek gripe – the ears on the cowl look too similar to those of Nite-Owl’s from Watchmen.

Wonder Woman’s characterisation remains consistent, and Gadot continues to embody her badass side in addition to her empathy and wisdom. In many ways, Diana is the most mature of the team, who can sometimes behave like children. There are many opportunities to showcase the character’s abilities, and the introductory scene in which she foils a terrorist bombing is a stylish and exciting sequence. The dynamic that develops between Batman and Wonder Woman is the closest the movie comes to being poignant, and this reviewer wishes it were developed further.

The Flash will be the runaway favourite for many viewers. Miller eagerly conveys the character’s wide-eyed awe and just how thrilled he is to be part of the team. He’s the rookie and, since he’s prone to geeking out, is the audience-identification character. Barry, a budding criminologist, also appears to be a fan of Rick and Morty and the South Korean pop group Black Pink. He provides the lion’s share of the film’s comic relief, and never comes off as insufferably obnoxious.

Momoa’s iteration of Aquaman has been termed ‘Aquabro’ by some. While the irreverent jock personality isn’t exactly in line with how Aquaman has been portrayed in the comics, it works within the context of the larger team. It seems like more scenes set in Atlantis were cut – we only get a fleeting glimpse of Amber Heard as Mera, and Willem Dafoe as Nuidis Vulko is altogether absent.

Fisher’s Cyborg might be the most angst-ridden character, as he struggles to come to terms with his newfound existence as part man, mostly machine. He gets a RoboCop-style character arc. If the version you’re most familiar with is from the Teen Titans cartoon, this is a significant departure from that. He does eventually get to utter a fan-favourite catchphrase, though.

Steppenwolf’s design works well and Ciarán Hinds’ expressions contribute to a fairly mean-looking character, but he’s just never that scary. Steppenwolf is largely generic and is close in characterisation and his function in the plot to Ronan the Accuser from Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a threat that never quite takes hold, despite multiple attempts to explain just how fearsome the character is.

Jeremy Irons’ sardonic Alfred cracks a few jokes, while J.K. Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon seems to have stepped straight off the comic book page. We can’t wait to see what he does with the role in future films.

When Whedon replaced Snyder, he dropped Junkie XL as composer, replacing him with Danny Elfman. It is a delight to hear Elfman’s Batman theme from the 1989 Batman movie in the theatre again. There are also hints of John Williams’ original Superman theme.

While Justice League has its issues and feels severely truncated, it has enough energy and verve to compensate for its shortcomings. Long-time fans of these characters will get at least a tiny bit of a thrill out of seeing them together on the big screen, and if you’ve complained about how gloomy earlier DCEU entries were, this might be more your speed.

Oh – stick around for a fun mid-credits scene, and a spectacular post-credits stinger that left this reviewer gobsmacked.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Arrival

For F*** Magazine

ARRIVAL

Director : Denis Villeneuve
Cast : Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Genre : Sci-fi/Drama
Run Time : 1h 58min
Opens : 12 January 2017
Rating : PG-13

arrival-posterIt’s Close Encounters of the Learned Kind: aliens are greeted not with a barrage of laser fire, but by academics seeking to understand their motive for travelling to Earth. When 12 extra-terrestrial spacecraft appear hovering above Earth, US Army Colonel GT Weber (Whitaker) ropes in linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) and theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Renner) to head a team that will attempt communicating with the aliens. The arrival of the 12 ships throws society into disarray, with other countries’ handling of the situation posing the threat of all-out war. Louise and Ian enter the ship, making contact with the aliens, which come to be known as ‘heptapods’. Louise studies the heptapods’ language, a series of complex circular shapes, gradually figuring out how to speak to them. In the meantime, tensions escalate worldwide, with many Americans calling for a show of force against the heptapods after the aliens convey that their purpose on Earth is to “offer weapon”.

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Arrival is based on Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, a Nebula Award-winning novella. Director Denis Villeneuve, currently working on the Blade Runner sequel, had wanted to make a science fiction film for some time. Meanwhile, screenwriter Eric Heisserer had been unsuccessfully pitching an adaptation of Story of Your Life and was about to give up on it. Producers Dan Cohen and Dan Levine eventually united Villeneuve and Heisserer, with the result being a towering achievement in the genre. Villeneuve’s approach of measured stillness gives this first contact story considerable gravitas, while keeping it intimate and personal in that the events are largely seen from one character’s point of view. Aficionados of the genre will recognise certain elements in Arrival, but the way they’re assembled and presented is unlike any sci-fi film before it.

arrival-shipVilleneuve refrains from flashy stylistic flourishes, with the aliens and their ships deliberately under-designed. Much of the atmosphere comes courtesy of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score. Its ominous electronic tones are contrasted with the stirring strings of Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight, which opens and closes the film.

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Arrival’s premise is built on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the concept in linguistics that one’s worldview is intrinsically shaped by the structure of one’s language. While Arrival does require its audience to be engaged in the story, it doesn’t drop one off in the deep end to drown in dense techno-babble. Several sci-fi/fantasy TV shows and movies have boasted entirely invented alien languages, but this has generally been done as a world-building move to give the fictional civilisations more texture. In Arrival, the heptapods’ language is the backbone of the story rather than a detail, with the structure of the language demonstrating the heptapods’ transcendent perception of time. By the time we get to the mind-bending conclusion, we were fully invested in the plot. As trippy as the ending is, it does not break any of the earlier-established rules.

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Villenueve’s films can generally be described as “cold”, but Adams’ performance anchors Arrival with warmth and humanity. Adams’ ability to convey a rich range of emotions while remaining understated is an invaluable asset here. We are presented with a back-story for Louise that seems emotionally manipulative, but Adams’ performance gives the character great depth, and we are later provided context for said back-story. Louise is analytical, but not condescending in the way academics in movies often can be. She is shaken by her initial encounter with the aliens, as anyone would be, but she forges ahead to make sense of the information she’s been given.

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Renner’s Ian serves as a foil to Adams’ Louise, with Renner bringing just enough roguish charm to the part. Ian takes a back seat to Louise for most of the film, but in the middle of stressful circumstances, they find solace in each other. In Ian’s introductory scene, he disagrees with Louise that language is the foundation of any culture, contending that science is instead. Louise and Ian’s relationship is symbolic of how the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ sciences intersect. By working together towards a common goal, Louise and Ian overcome the obstacles in their path instead of getting in each other’s way, making the duo one that is easy to root for.

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Whitaker plays the military man whose every action is governed by orders from on high, and who baulks at some of the unorthodox methods employed by Louise and Ian but is ultimately supportive of their efforts. The film lacks nuance in its portrayal of how other countries are reacting to the alien ships stationed in their backyards. Louise and Ian are spearheading the American effort to establish contact with the heptapods and as expected, Russia and China are seen being the most aggressive. Still, “lacking nuance” is relative, since most the film is complex and sensitively realised. It is disheartening to think that the current U.S. President-Elect would likely nuke the heptapods into oblivion as a knee-jerk reaction instead of sending a linguist and a physicist to deduce the aliens’ raison d’être.

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While Will Smith welcoming an extra-terrestrial marauder to Earth with a swift punch to the face might be the pop culture conception of first contact with aliens, sci-fi abounds with more contemplative approaches to this hypothetical situation. As Arrival draws to a close, it becomes clear that this film deserves a place in the sci-fi pantheon alongside the very best examples of the genre.

Summary: As intelligent and thought-provoking as it is moving and profound, Arrival’s approach to the scenario of mankind’s first contact with beings not of this Earth is powerful and sublime.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Nocturnal Animals

For F*** Magazine

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS 

Director : Tom Ford
Cast : Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 57min
Opens : 1 December 2016
Rating : M18 (Nudity)

nocturnal-animals-posterTom Ford shows off his night moves in his second directorial effort, a neo-noir psychological thriller. Susan Morrow (Adams) is a wealthy L.A. art gallery owner, whose relationship with her second husband Hutton (Armie) has soured. Susan receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), titled ‘Nocturnal Animals’ after Edward’s nickname for Susan and dedicated to her. The novel centres on Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), a mild-mannered man whose wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) are abducted after a violent encounter with local ruffians during a road trip through Texas. Detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) helps Tony track down the culprit, handyman Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson), in the hopes of finding Laura and India. The brutality and rawness of the story shocks Susan, who reflects on the circumstances that led to the dissolution of her marriage with Edward. With Edward back in town and Hutton away on business, old wounds are reopened as Susan plans to meet with Edward for the first time in years.

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Nocturnal Animals is based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. In addition to directing, Ford adapted the novel for the screen and produced the movie, meaning that his stamp is all over the film. Ford’s directorial debut A Single Man was critically acclaimed and netted star Colin Firth and Oscar nomination. Critics and audiences were curious to see what Ford would follow the period piece with. While it is reductive to say that Nocturnal Animals is a case of “style over substance”, that’s essentially true. Ford has a distinct vision, but much of the imagery can’t help but come off as pretentious. We realise we’ve dug ourselves a hole by trucking out the ‘p’ word, but bear with us. Nocturnal Animals is at once subtle and overwrought, and we have a feeling that this was intentional. Ford appears to enjoy toying with the form and the ‘story within a story’ structure, but it’s difficult to get at what the film really is about.

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Two stories sit side-by-side and gradually intertwine. The ‘real world’ is cold and manicured, while the world of the novel is earthy, gritty and raw. The transitions which jolt us out of the book’s narrative and back into Susan’s reality are effective, and there are moments of intensity which reel the viewer in. However, the larger approach seems designed to hold the audience at arm’s length, and there’s the sense that Ford is playing a game of pushing us away then pulling us close as he pleases. Individually and stripped of the atmospherics provided by Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, neither of the two stories is all that riveting. There’s some satisfaction to be derived in seeing how they fit together, but one can almost feel Ford dancing about behind the camera, shouting “isn’t this all very artsy? Isn’t that delightful?”

As Nocturnal Animals parcels out information about Susan and Edward’s marriage, there are heart-rending scenes and the film approaches being relatable. In a flashback, Susan’s obnoxious mother Anne (Linney) haughtily cautions against marrying Edward. Anne warns her daughter that as a writer, Edward won’t be able to make a stable living, and the qualities she’s drawn to will soon be the things she hates most about him. This is a scene straight out of this reviewer’s nightmares. The film conveys the tumult of the creative process, how difficult it is to make a living as an artist and the price one has to pay for falling in love with a creative type. Its portrayal of heartbreak rings true, but this is buried beneath layers of posturing and overblown metaphors.

The performances contain glimmers of shattering power, but many scenes are also stilted and over-directed. Adams has proven herself to be an actress of considerable depth, getting across the war that roils within Susan without resorting to histrionics. Clad in Arianne Phillips-designed costumes, Adams is the picture of glamour – this is, of course, a façade.

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Gyllenhaal plays both Edward and the author’s surrogate within his novel, Tony. The violent revenge tale set against the dusty, desolate west Texas landscape is reminiscent of True Detective or Justified, and Gyllenhaal does enough to differentiate Edward and Tony. Tony is the physical manifestation of Edward’s angst, a vehicle for the author’s catharsis. It’s a moving turn from Gyllenhaal, but it can also be perceived as a romanticising of the “tortured artist” archetype.

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Shannon is at his best when he gets to be nuanced, since he is often typecast as blustery villains. Bob Andes is the archetypical crusty small-town sheriff helping the stranded outsider, a southern-fried seeker of justice. Shannon brings what could have been a cartoon character to three-dimensional life. In the meantime, Taylor-Johnson’s Ray is equal parts pathetic and menacing, though he does have trouble with the accent.

The aloof, handsome and ultimately unfaithful husband, Hammer’s Hutton Morrow is a walking plot device. Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen and Jena Malone all show up for one scene each, filling out Susan’s social and professional circle. Ford has some fun in casting with a metafictional eye – Adams and Fisher are often called looklikes, and Fisher plays Adams’ surrogate in the story-in-a-story. In Tony and Susan, Tony and Laura’s daughter was named Helen. In the film, Helen is renamed ‘India’. Susan’s adult daughter Samantha is played by India Menuez. It was fun tid-bit to discover.

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Like the contemporary art that fills Susan’s gallery, some will laud Nocturnal Animals as deep and wise, while others will dismiss it as showy and hollow. The striking visuals and impactful vignettes make this worth a look, but the film’s refusal to arrive at a point and its flights of arthouse fancy are often alienating.

Summary: If you’re prone to using “artsy-fartsy” as a dismissive term, Tom Ford’s sophomore work as a filmmaker will leave you cold. However, there are moving performances and heart-rending statements about love and art that resonate.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

For F*** Magazine

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE 

Director : Zack Snyder
Cast : Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Gal Gadot, Holly Hunter
Genre : Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 hrs 32 mins
Opens : 24 March 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)
The following review is spoiler-free.
Superheroes collide with shattering force in the second film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). It has been 18 months since Superman/Clark Kent’s (Cavill) battle with General Zod in Metropolis. Clark has moved in with fellow reporter Lois Lane (Adams), and Superman has gained both admirers and fervent detractors. Falling into the latter camp is Gotham City’s Batman/Bruce Wayne (Affleck), billionaire industrialist by day, ruthless vigilante by night. His butler Alfred (Irons) advises against taking rash action, but Batman is convinced that Superman’s power, if left unchecked, will lead to global annihilation. Also plotting to take down Superman, albeit for more selfish purposes, is young tech mogul Lex Luthor (Eisenberg). Luthor lobbies Kentucky senator June Finch (Hunter) to support his R&D efforts in developing a deterrent to use against Superman, while Finch calls for Superman to explain himself before the senate. In the meantime, Bruce’s curiosity is ignited by the presence of Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gadot), an elegant and capable warrior of yet-to-be-determined origin.


2013’s Man of Steel left critics and fans sharply divided, and it’s an understatement to say that this follow-up has quite the burden to bear. There’s no question that DC is playing catch-up to Marvel at the movies and there was the valid fear that Batman v Superman would be overstuffed to make up for lost ground. Batman v Superman does have apparent flaws, but a conscious effort is made to incorporate a substantive depth that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) doesn’t yet possess, outside of Netflix anyway. Character motivations make plenty of sense, conflicts are given context, major disagreements are not conveniently settled and the main criticism of Man of Steel, the wanton destruction caused or at least enabled by Superman, is directly addressed. Characters wax philosophical on the nature of god and man, the implications of nigh-unlimited power and notions of justice. This may come off as portentously logy to some, but to others, these are icons worth delving into.

Much has been made of the film’s 152-minute running time. Structurally, it is front-loaded with plot, with the bulk of the action being slathered on thick towards the conclusion. This reviewer did not feel the film was too long, and the character development we get during the first two acts is very satisfying. However, some audiences are bound to be fatigued and hard-pressed to care all that much about the climactic battles if they’ve already tuned out while Bruce is at the Batcomputer decrypting a hard drive. The Senator Finch subplot also proves largely extraneous.

Full disclosure: this reviewer is a massive DC Comics fan and is able to appreciate director Zack Snyder’s interpretation of seminal imagery and plot points from the source material, most notably The Dark Knight Returns. Nothing in this film made us throw our hands up in the air, crying “they just don’t get it!” Because of the sheer breadth of these characters’ history in the comics, there’s no way to please everyone, and this reviewer found that the interpretations of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman feel like they belong in the same cohesive universe.

Any time Batman and Superman are in the same piece of media, the former is bound to steal the limelight from the latter. Affleck’s casting was controversial, with many deeming him insufficiently intimidating. This version of Batman is a grizzled veteran who’s 20 years into his crime-fighting career, employs a dazzling array of high-tech gadgets and is driven and obsessed. Good enough for us. Sure, he displays a sadistic streak, branding criminals with his bat insignia, but then again, Michael Keaton’s Batman shoved clowns into potholes, leaving them to explode as he grinned. There are references to allies and rogues, Batman’s relationship with Alfred gets sufficient play. Irons brings both the wry charm and the gumption to stand up to Batman that are integral to the Alfred character. The Bat-centric action sequences are strongly reminiscent of the recent Arkham video-game series, which this reviewer feels contained some of the best sequences of Batman in combat ever presented.

Superman is variously referred to as a “god” and a “devil” and Cavill continues to dig for the humanity behind the iconography. While he might lack the acting chops to flesh out a truly compelling Superman, particularly when pitted against Batman, it’s good to see Clark juggle the heroics and his reporter day job. There’s also the element of class warfare: Bruce is the scion of a wealthy family; Clark was raised on a farm in Kansas and works the daily grind as a journalist. There are some genuinely sweet moments that Cavill shares with Adams. While we do get to see Lois in the thick of it doing a good deal of snooping around, the main purpose the character serves is to get rescued and get rescued and get rescued. Lois had a significant role in the proceedings in Man of Steel, but is side-lined a little because of everything else occurring in the story here.

Eisenberg’s performance is the biggest problem this reviewer has with the film. This is meant to be a reinvention of Lex, traditionally more of a quiet schemer type. Lex’s reworked back-story, which sees him as a young tech mogul who has reshaped his father’s aging company into a Silicon Valley power player, is just fine by this reviewer. Many of the character’s lines are clever and his actions and appropriately devious. However, Eisenberg’s twitchy jumpiness is unable to convey the deep-seated menace one of the most iconic DC supervillains should inherently possess. His words and actions are despicable enough, but his mannerisms diminish their impact.



Wonder Woman’s presence here reminded this reviewer of Black Widow’s role in Iron Man 2. Since there’s so much already afoot, the character’s first big screen appearance is more of a pointer to her upcoming solo film, with several clever allusions to Diana’s roots in Greek mythology being included. The moves she busts during the final fight, her entry onto the battlefield heralded by Tina Guo’s rocking electric cello solo, are sure to elicit cheers. That’s the standout bit of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s soundtrack for sure. Gadot does not have too much to do here, but her blend of mystique and strength fits Wonder Woman just fine. The product placement is toned down considerably from Man of Steel; the most obvious instance being when Wonder Woman boards a Turkish Airlines flight – a visible jet, if you will.

Many were worried that that the film might spend too long setting up the upcoming Justice League movie, but it turns out that we get fleeting glimpses of the superhero team’s future members; said glimpses are tantalising and memorable. Just as the titular heroes grapple with each other, this film grapples with doing these iconic characters justice while serving up bombastic spectacle. It falters on several occasions, but this reviewer appreciates how the DCEU is setting itself apart from the MCU. The three-episode arc of Superman: The Animated Series in which Batman and Superman first meet does have far more of a focus than this film has, but this live-action event should not be written off lightly and we’ve got our fingers crossed for how the DCEU proceeds from here.

Summary:Packed with as much thematic pondering as super-powered fisticuffs, Batman v Superman might be a chore for some to sit through, but it’s clear the filmmakers have not taken this clash of titans lightly.

RATING: 3.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Big Eyes

For F*** Magazine

BIG EYES

Director : Tim Burton
Cast : Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 29 January 2015
It was the 1960s and Margaret Keane’s hypnotic paintings of the doe-eyed waifs captured the imagination of the world, but for a long time, nobody knew the dark truth behind these depictions of innocence. After separating from her husband Frank, Margaret (Adams) takes her young daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) to San Francisco. There, she meets and quickly falls hard for Walter Keane (Waltz), seemingly also a passionate painter. Margaret and Walter marry and after Margaret’s unique “Big Eye” paintings garner attention, Walter begins to take credit for them. Soon, the paintings are everywhere, mass-reproduced and sold in supermarkets and gas stations, with Walter making television appearances and hobnobbing with celebrities, everyone believing him to be the true artist. As Walter grows more domineering, making Margaret fear for her own safety, she finally tells the world the truth as the couple battles it out in court to determine proper credit.

            Big Eyes marks director Tim Burton’s first biopic since 1994’s Ed Wood, re-teaming him with that film’s writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. It’s been repeatedly noted that this is Burton’s first live-action film since 1996’s Mars Attacks! without either Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter.  A project like Big Eyes is exactly what Burton needs and it is perhaps not entirely coincidental that this film about artistic integrity comes from a director once lauded as a fresh, unique voice but who has become something of a parody of himself. The film still bears many of Burton’s signature touches and the heightened stylisation proves to be a double-edged sword even when it’s consciously scaled down. While the saturated colour palette and the Stepford Wives-style depiction of a suburban idyll that becomes a personal prison add panache to the proceedings, they also hamper the authenticity of the true story.

            We’ve all heard stories of artists being taken advantage of and the Margaret and Walter Keane case is one of an artist being taken advantage of in the extreme. Burton establishes a sense of unease throughout and writers Alexander and Karaszewski manage to play on the audience’s knowledge of how things went down in a general, such that we know where it’s all headed but anticipate and dread it in equal measure as Walter’s lie snowballs. Production designer Rick Heinrichs and Burton’s usual costume designer Colleen Atwood create an immersive period-accurate milieu tinged with that kitschy Burton flair. The music video for Soundgarden’s Black Hole Suncomes to mind. While the film’s tone is not as uneven as it could’ve been, one still gets the feeling that characters such as Margaret’s friend DeAnn (Ritter) and snobbish gallery owner Ruben (Schwartzman) have been written in only to provide requisite comic relief in what really is an emotionally-heavy film, though it has been described as a “comedy-drama”.

            Amy Adams’ name has popped up on various “Oscar snubs” lists and it’s easy to see why. Adams ably embodies the quiet dignity of the character, shying away from showy bursts of emotion, her performance all the more affecting for it. An artist’s personal attachment to his or her work is a difficult sentiment to convey, but the way Adams plays it, one really feels that when credit for the Big Eye paintings is snatched from Margaret, it’s as if one of her own children has been taken from her. The film makes no bones about being a feminist statement and Adams’ Margaret is very sympathetic and easy to root for.

            Christoph Waltz brings his trademark wildfire charisma to the role of Walter Keane, effortlessly essaying a smug, charming manipulator with flair to spare. While magnetic and watchable, Waltz does veer dangerously close to the cartoony side of things when Walter lashes out at Margaret, as if he’s practising for his upcoming Bond villain role. His portrayal of the abusive, controlling husband here is near-identical to the performance he delivered as the abusive, controlling husband in Water for Elephants. Journalist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) observes “subtle doesn’t sell”, and Waltz seems to have taken that to heart. All that said though, he’s a much better fit for the part than Ryan Reynolds, who was attached to the film at one point, would’ve been.

             Big Eyes sets itself apart from the prestige biopic pack with a deliberately cloying aesthetic, director Burton expressing the idea that ugliness can lurk beneath the surface of beautiful things. In focusing on Margaret and Walter’s relationship, Big Eyes seems to side-step challenging discussions about the role art plays in society which, when viewed through the lens of a period film, could have been especially thought-provoking. While still impactful and moving, this approach strips the material of some of the rawness and honesty it requires and ultimately, Big Eyes doesn’t dig deep enough.
Summary: A domestic abuse drama tinged with queasy stylisation, Big Eyes has Tim Burton deviating from his now-tired formula and boasts Amy Adams in top form but suffers slightly from being too simplistic.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong