Sunday, March 26, 2017

Classics: A Review of Big Eyes By Lauren Ennis

It is often said that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. It is also a commonly held belief that the best art is that which contains or reveals some universal truth. In the 2014 historical drama Big Eyes, the importance of truth and beauty in art propel a media sensation and a landmark legal case.  Beautiful or not, the true story behind Margaret Keane’s iconic ‘big eyes’ paintings is every bit as haunting and polarizing as the paintings themselves and startlingly relevant in today’s era of instant celebrity.
The juciest art scandal this side of the Gardner Museum Heist

The story begins in 1958 as recent divorcee Margaret Ulbricht (Amy Adams) sets out in search of a fresh start in San Francisco with her young daughter, Jane (Delaney Raye and Emily Bruhn) in tow. While trying to sell her paintings of large eyed waifs at a local art fair she meets and is instantly captivated by charming fellow artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). The pair embark upon a whirlwind romance, and are soon married. Much to her dismay, however, the marriage does not provide the financial security she had hoped for and the couple turn to selling their art as a second income. Eventually, Walter convinces a local club owner (Jon Polito) to rent out wall space in his club to display their art. When Walter gets into a drunken brawl with the club owner that ends up making local news, the paintings become a local curiosity and Margaret’s work begins selling...with Walter listed as the artist. Manipulated into presenting the paintings as his, she takes a secondary role in her relationship and career, which quickly weighs upon her conscience. When the media frenzy surrounding the paintings incites a critical backlash from the art world the pair’s relationship finally reaches its breaking point. Margaret ultimately flees her second marriage and reinvents herself in Hawaii as a devout Jehovah’s Witness. Her renewed faith in God and herself provide her with the strength to reveal the tangled truth about her life and work, and finally dispel the big lies surrounding the iconic big eyes.

Big Eyes sets itself apart from other historical dramas by looking beyond the facts of the Keanes’ deception to the motivations behind it. Through its exploration of Margaret’s reluctant acceptance of Walter’s scheme to her eventual revolt against it, the film depicts an apt portrayal of changing gender roles in 1960’s America. When viewers are first introduced to her, Margaret is still reeling from her recent divorce and finds herself adrift in the cutting edge culture of 60’s California. This initial impression provides crucial insight into her mindset, and explains why she was so drawn to Walter and the supposed security he represented. Similarly, her failed attempts to launch her career as an artist leave little wonder as to why she accepted his argument that her work would only sell if sold under a male artist’s name. As a result, the film makes sense of Margaret’s otherwise baffling choices by placing her decisions within the historical context of the era she is inhabiting. Through its focus upon the external factors that drive Margaret, the film presents her story in such a way that her efforts to find herself and reclaim her work directly parallel the ways in which millions of American women in her generation claimed their place beyond the confines of traditional roles.

Talk about Bette Davis eyes!
Beyond any political ideas it may invoke, Big Eyes is first and foremost a character study and director Tim Burton sheds a by turns sympathetic and critical eye upon his complex characters. Rather than relying upon the lavish special effects or garish costuming that his films have become known for, Burton returns to his roots in this deceptively simple tale of a search for artistic recognition gone outrageously awry. Much like his early hit, Ed Wood, the film poignantly depicts the by turns perilous and fulfilling pursuit of a life in the arts. The film differs from its predecessor, however, in that it unflinchingly portrays the ways in which the need for critical and monetary success can embitter even the most sincere artist. Despite the darkness of the film’s subject matter, however, Burton’s light approach and obvious affection for his characters allows the story to simultaneously serve as both a cautionary tale of what we leave behind on our journey to the top, and a heartfelt tribute to the redeeming power of art. Equal parts feminist allegory and offbeat character study there’s nothing small about the ideas and themes explored in Big Eyes.

The talented ensemble cast brings the stranger than fiction tale of the Keane paintings to vibrant life. The supporting cast lend apt performances with Danny Huston and Krysten Ritter earning particular notice in their roles as a cynical reporter and Margaret’s worldly best friend. Delaney Raye and Emily Bruhn are equally believable in their portrayals of Margaret’s daughter, Jane and excellently capture the ways in which the Keanes’ fraught relationship and the lies surrounding it impact her as she grows older. Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams each hold their own as Margaret and Walter and portray the couple’s relationship with a depth and nuance that sheds light on how and why the pair propagated one of the greatest deceptions in art history. Waltz’s performance showcases Walter’s con-man charm while slowly revealing the sinister motivations lurking beneath his amiable fa├žade. Adams paints a sympathetic portrait of Margaret as she evolves from insecure to resilient without downplaying her complicity in Walter’s scheme.

The ‘big eyes’ paintings are considered products of the commercialism of 1960’s pop culture, but the story behind Big Eyes is truly one for the ages. Through its combination of an intelligent script, a uniformly superb cast, and timeless themes, the film relates a historical tale that continues to resonate today. Part historical drama and part inspirational tale, Big Eyes artfully portrays truths about the search for self and recognition that extend far beyond the confines of its 60’s pop art setting. For a bit of art history that is truly too strange to be fiction take a glimpse at Big Eyes.

Warhol had nothing on this marketing team

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Classics: A Review of Chicago By Lauren Ennis

Drugs, alcohol, adultery, celebrity, and murder; these are just some of the elements of a hot selling headline in 2017. Before you start bemoaning the state of modern society just yet, however, these same elements make up a tale of debauchery and decadence set nearly one hundred years ago. Inspired by the frenzy surrounding two real life murder cases, the 2002 hit movie musical Chicago cleverly satirizes the mores and media of the roaring twenties in a way that highlights the darker aspects of our own celebrity centric age. Part escapist journey into the most sordid of the ‘good old days’ and part eerie glimpse into our own present, Chicago is a film with just enough razzle dazzle to leave you begging for more.
The slammer never looked so sexy

The story begins with bored housewife Roxie Hart (Renee Zellwegger) witnessing the arrest of local nightclub sensation Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) while out on the town with her lover, Fred Casely (Dominic West). Later, when she realizes that Fred has no intentions of fulfilling his promise to help her break into show business, Roxie follows in Velma’s footsteps and shoots him to death. After her attempt to disguise the murder as an act of self-defense fails to impress the police, she finds herself on ‘murderess row’ in Cook County Jail facing a potential death sentence. While in prison, Roxie is reunited with Velma, and after witnessing how the stage star uses her notoriety to boost her career becomes determined to capitalize upon her own infamy. When both women enlist the services of slick defense attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), the stage is set for a toe-tapping rivalry that is truly to die for.

Although Chicago marks Roxie and Velma’s fourth incarnation after a previous stage play, a silent drama, and a heavily sanitized 1940’s drama, the film manages to approach its story with a wit and nuance that makes the tale startlingly fresh. Rather than employ the stage technique of having characters spontaneously break out into song, director Rob Marshall cleverly presents all the musical numbers as part of an elaborate fantasy in Roxie’s warped imagination. This technique avoids becoming pretentious by highlighting the outrageousness of both Roxie’s perspective and the whirlwind events surrounding her, while smoothing the transition between story and song. Written by famed stage team Fred Ebb and John Kander the show maintains the musical style and dark sensibility of the duo’s earlier effort, Cabaret, but utilizes a knowing wit and darkly comic approach that ensure the film never becomes outright bleak.

The film manages to pay apt tribute to the story’s stage roots, while still creating a cohesive and fast paced drama.  The majority of the stage musical’s songs are all present, and maintain their distinctive vaudeville vibe and jazzy edge. The group numbers are appropriately dazzling as the songs play upon the overwhelming atmosphere of a crowded courtroom and the dizzying spectacle of a press conference, while the solo numbers contain an intimacy and poignancy that infuse the film with its emotional core. Rather than merely casting singers known for their musical ability, Marshall wisely chose stars who could aptly embody the characters while still performing their roles. As a result, the songs, while crucial, are just one more element in the wider tapestry of the film, as the plot remains front and center and the film avoids falling into the common musical trap of using the plot as a mere excuse for the music. As a result the film appeals equally to both musical theater buffs and moviegoers alike.

Never turn your back on an angry showgirl
The film successfully brings the stage shenanigans of Roxie, Velma, and company to roaring life through the uniformly stellar performances of its cast. Renee Zellwegger provides a fresh take on Roxie, as she manages to imbue her homicidal housewife with a girl next door charm that could win over even the most hardened jury. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a force of nature in her role as nightclub sensation turned notorious killer Velma, and adds depth and nuance to her portrayal of Velma’s desperate efforts to hold onto her career in the notoriously fickle limelight. Queen Latifah is equal parts sassy and sultry in her role as loveably corrupt prison matron, ‘Mama’ Morton. Richard Gere turns on the charm as the quick witted lawyer, Billy Flynn. John C Reilly makes the most of his limited screen time as Roxie’s betrayed husband and makes Amos a three dimensional character, rather than the befuddled dupe he is often portrayed as on stage. Christine Baranski lends an appropriately cynical turn as ‘sob sister’ columnist Mary Sunshine. While the majority of the cast are better known for their acting than their singing, each provides a performance that is nothing short of infectious as they sing, dance, and act with equal aplomb in the tradition of Hollywood’s legendary Golden Age triple-threats.

 From stage to screen 2002’s Chicago is never less than chic. Through its razor-blade sharp wit and toe-tapping tunes the film is guilty as charged of breathing fresh life into the movie musical. Through its biting social commentary the film tells a story that is eerily relevant despite remaining firmly within historical context, all while putting on a show with more than its fair share of razzle dazzle. For a take on the classic movie musical with a modern edge take a tour of Chicago.

Guns blazing, ladies!