We critique based on the artist. A Picasso will be held up and judged against other Picassos, while a Tim Burton film will be scrutinized first and foremost as a Tim Burton film. “It’s better than Alice In Wonderland, but it’s no Ed Wood!” In recent films such as Ratatouille and Birdman, the figure of the critic is demonized, because these films were made by people who know what it feels like to have a good-hearted effort torn apart.
Bad criticism can hurt, but no criticism hurts even more, because then no one is paying attention. Being critiqued is an artist’s highest privilege, a sign that one’s endeavors matter enough to instill an opinion in those who glance upon it. Creative types may complain about the critics, just as the critics complain about artists, but what is art without opinion? If a work of art does not beg for analysis, then it is not worth being viewed at all.
Margaret Keane is an artist who was robbed of the opportunity to have her work criticized. Technically, it was criticized — heavily, mercilessly, savagely — but that had nothing to do with her, for Keane’s artistry was attributed to a man who stole credit for her paintings: her husband. The truth came out in 1970, but it didn’t really come out until 2014, when Tim Burton made a movie about it starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. Because millions of people who never knew or had forgotten Margaret Keane will now remember her name, and her work.Big Eyes follows Keane’s story, and it’s a very nice movie to look at — nicer, even, than Keane’s best-selling artwork, which was dubbed obvious and sentimental by critics who favored more subtle or obfuscated works. The film takes its name from the gigantic peepers found in Keane’s subjects — lost-looking waifs with moist eyeballs that look like they’ll burst into tears at any moment, and some that already have. Margaret believes that eyes are windows to the soul, so she makes them very big windows. As this story grows sadder, Margaret’s connection to these pouty moppets grows more and more apparent. Art is personal, and Margaret’s gentle nature is very much on display for all the world to see — if only they knew it was hers.
It is the late 1950s, and Margaret leaves one lousy husband for another. At first, Walter Keane is utterly charming — he’s an artist himself, as well as an excellent salesman. Or at least, he seems to be. He’s not so good at selling his own artwork, some rather simplistic renditions of Paris streets, but he does interest the public in Margaret’s big-eyed tykes. The catch? He takes credit for the paintings, blaming a man’s world for the fact that womens’ art isn’t taken seriously. And he’s probably right — we get the sense that mild-mannered Maragret would never have gotten around to selling herself. In Walter’s hands, and under Walter’s name, her pictures sell like hotcakes and spawn endless cheap reproductions, posters and postcards with her paintings shrunk down to an easily-consumable form and size, perfect for taking home and pinning to the fridge with a magnet. Art critics scoff at both this and the art itself, but who cares about the critics when you’re making tons of money?That very question, in fact, may be what drew Tim Burton to this material. Burton has been knocking himself off for years — most of his recent films feel like pale imitations of old faves like Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, but minus some of the magic that made them so delightful in the first place. Apart from a few stylistic flourishes, Big Eyes doesn’t feel like a Tim Burton remix — the colors pop, there are no pale freaks to be found, and Johnny Depp is entirely absent. (He must have been busy being all Tim Burton-y in Into The Woods.) This is a more grounded story in the vein of Ed Wood, but with the tone and look of Big Fish. It’s the sort of movie Burton needed to make if he wants to be taken seriously as an artist anymore, not just a Walter Keane-like salesman who is content making cheap imitations of his old hits. Burton can’t rightly be dubbed a fraud, but many have wondered if the onetime visionary still has a creative bone left in his body after debacles like Alice In Wonderland and Planet Of The Apes. His work of late has consisted of noble near-misses and a few utter misfires, but it’s been a long while since he had a real critical and commercial smash hit.
Alas, Big Eyes is not poised to be that movie. The film got a trio of Golden Globe nominations, for the two lead performances as well as Lana Del Rey’s theme song. But the Oscar race may be too tight this year to squeeze either Amy Adams or Christoph Waltz in, especially considering that both have been better elsewhere. Adams is good, but her character is a bit of a doormat, going along with Walter’s scheme without much reason to. She’s nearly as complicit in the deceit as he is, and for what? A little bit of money? In order for Big Eyes to work as it should, the romance between Margaret and Walter would need to be palpable. We’d need to believe that she really loved him, and that he was worth loving. (Spoiler alert: he is not.)
Red-blooded romance has never been Burton’s bag, especially when it’s not of the goopy, fairy-tale-esque Edward Scissorhands variety. And I would wager that Waltz is miscast, playing Walter as a manic huckster schmuck from the get-go, the kind of man we want Margaret to turn and run away from at first sight. Maybe we’ve seen Waltz play naughty in too many Tarantino movies in order to buy him as a romantic lead just yet, or maybe Burton never wanted to go that route in the first place. Regardless, there just isn’t much at stake in this movie — Margaret can get up and walk away at any time, and for a long while, she just doesn’t. She loses her only friend (Krysten Ritter), she loses her art, and she loses her self-respect. And what does she gain in the process? She trades her “big eyes” for a big house and a big jerk.
Big Eyes finishes strong, thanks to a cleverly comedic courtroom climax written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who also penned Ed Wood. It zips along easily enough, but never anchors us in the fear or uncertainty that Margaret claims she feels. There’s only one scene, late in the game, when Walter is truly frightening, allowing Waltz to unlock some of the sadistic magic he brought to Hans Landa and King Schultz, his two Oscar-winning roles from Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Perhaps Waltz would feel more at home in one of Burton’s zanier films. (And, gasp, would Johnny Depp have been better in this one?) Big Eyes‘ obvious feminist message gets drowned somewhat when our heroine is so incapable of defending herself. We’re never allowed to be invested in their romance, or in Margaret as a character, since it’s impossible to be on board with her choices. The story doesn’t offer her enough incentive to make them.Adams is a great actress, but it’s hard to imagine that the Academy will want to recognize her for a role that is so much weaker than her dynamo turns in movies like The Master and American Hustle. (Though they do have a history of selecting an actor’s weaker roles for accolades. See recently: Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady.) Instead, Big Eyes seems to fall into place as one of the also-rans in an enormously crowded holiday season (it might have fared better in the spring). With a more nuanced actor playing Walter, it might have worked, but with every revelation that Margaret has about Walter’s dishonesty, we say, “Duh.” His Keane is so obviously full of shit that it’s hard to believe anyone would buy what he’s selling. Because we don’t.
On a more positive, the art direction is breathtaking — nearly every shot would be worthy of framing and hanging on the wall. Big Eyes is one of the prettiest pictures of 2014, and the direction shows promising restraint from Burton. There’s at least a touch of real artistry at work behind the scenes here, enough to generate a feeling of goodwill toward Burton that I’ve been lacking lately. Burton certainly knows how to make a gorgeous movie, and that goes a long way in a film about art.
Even more visually impressive — not to mention visually daring — is Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, a likely nominee for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards this year. (It also nabbed a Golden Globe nod, and I’d bet that it’s poised to win both prizes.) Ida follows a young nun named Anna who learns of an aunt who gave her up to the convent as an orphan. Anna is all set to take her vows and devote herself entirely to God, but first there’s a trip to meet Wanda, who is in most way’s Anna’s opposite. Anna is demure and virginal, while Wanda enjoys booze and sex. But Wanda is no mere floozy — she has a horrific past we learn about gradually, a tragedy that also enlightens Anna on how and why she was orphaned.
The cinematography in Ida is mesmerizing, shot in black-and-white and a 1.375:1 aspect ratio that looks more like an Instagram than a movie. (It’s shot much better than most selfies, though.) Movies became widescreen in the first place as a response to the squareness of television sets, and now that TVs are getting all cinematic on us, movies like Ida and Mommy are heading back to the classical era with their framing. It might seem like a frustrating gimmick if Ida weren’t so meticulously composed, leaving lots of head room above its characters so we don’t forget that Anna is always thinking of God. If I could open an art gallery filled with nothing but still frames of Ida, I would. (Maybe I’ll just settle for a new Instagram account with the same agenda.)
Ida is more than just a visual masterpiece — the dialogue is spare and the story is simple, but it says so much. Anna and Wanda take a road trip that gradually reveals how Anna’s parents died in the Holocaust, and the “how” isn’t exactly what you’re expecting. But Ida is just as much a tale of the bond between an aunt and an orphan who never knew each other, as well as a tale of a sheltered, sober young woman exploring the big, bad world for the first time. The brief third act is almost its own mini-movie, exploring how Anna’s views on her life’s devotion change once she knows of her past. But it wouldn’t be nearly so poignant without the setup that precedes it.
Most movies would make grand sweeping gestures out of such grand themes, but Ida skips nimbly through all three plot threads, covering ground that many filmmakers might take three hours to explore in a mere 87 minutes. Pawel Pawlikowski doesn’t waste a single millisecond of our time, managing to be meditative at a breakneck pace. A story about a young nun and her chain-smoking aunt dealing with the fallout of the Holocaust in 1960s Poland — in black-and-white, no less — sounds more like a chore than a pleasure, but Ida is a pure delight to behold, with performances and visuals working in perfect harmony. It’s the best-looking film I saw this year. (But nice try, Big Eyes!)*