Big Eyes (B). Director Tim Burton (Corpse Bride) delivers perhaps his most normal movie to date—although the people at the center of Big Eyes are anything but normal. Indeed, this based-on-a-true-story movie reminded me a little of The Informant!, which left me thinking, “Did people really do these crazy things? Really?” This the story of Margaret and Walter Keane, who met in late 1950s San Francisco and got married. Margaret (Amy Adams, The Fighter) was an amateur painter who liked to paint pictures of small children with unusually large eyes. Walter (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained), a slick promoter, makes Margaret’s paintings famous, and eventually the paintings make them rich. The problem is that Walter is a compulsive liar and tells everyone that they’re his paintings. Why did Margaret go along with the sham? And why did she stay with Walter, who is portrayed in the film as pretty seriously unhinged? The movie doesn’t really get at the answers to those questions, probably because there are no good answers. There are a few recognizable actors in small roles (Danny Huston, Wrath of the Titans; Jason Schwartzman, Moonrise Kingdom), but it is Adams and Waltz’s movie. I enjoyed it, and I’ll be curious to see if the Academy shows Adams and Waltz some love for their solid performances.
Wild (B). Co-producer Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) stars in this adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book about hiking up the Pacific Crest Trail. It was pretty good. Cheryl is a mess; you quickly gather that her mother died pretty young, and that this tragedy screwed young Cheryl up royally. After indulging in some seriously self-destructive behavior and destroying her marriage to a decent-seeming guy, she decides for some reason that she is going to hike this wilderness trail from the southern tip of California to Canada, or at least as far as Portland. The movie follows Cheryl’s trek linearly, but it pauses frequently for flashbacks to show how Cheryl got where she was—mostly flashbacks to life with her mother (played by Laura Dern, The Fault in Our Stars). The movie certainly held my interest, and there are some tense moments (mainly when tiny little Reese encounters strange men out in the middle of nowhere). But I didn’t find Cheryl all that relatable a character (kind of like the gal in Tracks, the similar true story of a woman who walked across Australia), and I would have liked to have seen more about Cheryl’s “real life” with her husband before she set out on her journey. Still, worth seeing, and I fully expect some Oscar buzz for Reese and maybe for director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club).
The Movie Snob says Peter Jackson saved the best for last.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (B+). The movie review in the local newspaper criticized this final installment of the Hobbit trilogy for being non-stop action, with no time for personal moments. I have to disagree with my colleague on that point. Given the movie’s subtitle, obviously there is going to be plenty of action, but I thought there were enough quiet moments to give the film a little balance. The first order of business is to see what happens when Smaug the dragon (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) attacks the human settlement of Laketown. Then there’s a lull in the action while the forces of good and evil mass for the titular battle. There are plenty of heroics once the evil orcs, goblins, and giants attack the humans, elves, and dwarves assembled at the Lonely Mountain. I don’t think there’s really adequate justification for the decisions to shoehorn Legolas (Orlando Bloom, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) into a story in which he doesn’t belong, or to create lady elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, The Hurt Locker) out of whole cloth, but I guess they add a little sex appeal to a movie that would otherwise be largely without. And at only 144 minutes, it’s the trilogy’s shortest film to boot! I say check it out.
Birdman (B-), The latest film from director Alejandro Iñárritu (Babel) seems to be getting some award buzz, so I figured I should check it out. Michael Keaton (Batman) plays Riggan Thomas, a once-successful actor who walked away from a popular superhero movie franchise to pursue . . . well, I’m not sure what, but something different. Now, many years later, he is struggling to open a Broadway play that he has written, is directing, and plans to star in. Everything is going wrong, of course; money is short, critics are sharpening their knives, and to top it off Thomas is starting to hear a scornful voice in his head—the deep voice of Birdman, the superhero role he left behind. It’s a pretty entertaining movie with lots of star power. Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight) plays Thomas’s in-and-out-of-rehab daughter. Edward Norton (Fight Club) plays the temperamental actor who just might save the play. Zack Galifianakis (The Hangover) is Thomas’s over-stressed lawyer, and Naomi Watts (St. Vincent) and Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion) are the actresses in Thomas’s play. I’d have to say the film’s weakness is its length; at 119 minutes, it just started to feel a little long to me. Cut out about 15 or 20 minutes towards the end, and I’d probably give it a solid B.
The Homesman (B). Westerns are such exotic creatures, I like to try to see them whenever a new one is released. Of course, they are frequently terrible, like the January Jones vehicle Sweetwater, but I admire directors who try to breathe life into this wheezy old genre. I assumed this one would be laughably bad from the capsule reviews I read: Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a tough-as-nails farmer in the Nebraska Territory who agrees to transport three pioneer women back East because the three have gone stark raving mad from the tragedies and hardships of life on the frontier. It turned out to be not half bad. Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black 3) directs and co-stars as a crusty old ne’er-do-well who agrees to help Cuddy attempt the six-week trek through dangerous and desolate Indian country. Swank gives a brave performance as a lonely 31-year-old spinster who gets told to her face, more than once, that she is a very plain-looking woman, and bossy to boot. It’s a pretty grim tale, with some moments of dark humor to lighten (?) the mood. I’d give it a higher grade but for a serious twist that seemed pretty unlikely to me. You’ll be impressed at how many famous actors Jones persuaded to be in his pic, including Meryl Streep (Hope Springs), John Lithgow (Interstellar), James Spader (Lincoln), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), and Miranda Otto (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer (Frances Ha) plays one of the crazy women.
The Book of Life (B-). When I saw in the opening credits that this animated film was produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), I figured (correctly) that I was in for a wild ride. It’s a story within a story; a small group of ill-mannered school children go on a field trip to a museum, where a saucy tour guide soon has them spellbound with a tale about Old Mexico. That tale is the wild part. It involves a love triangle in which Manolo (voice of Diego Luna, Y Tu Mamá También) and Joaquin (voice of Channing Tatum, 22 Jump Street) vie for the hand of their childhood friend Maria (voice of Zoe Saldana, Star Trek). It also involves a wager on the love triangle by two magical beings who rule over the realms of the dead. And an effusive magical candlemaker (voice of Ice Cube, 21 Jump Street). And a wicked bandit named Chakal, and a bullfighter voiced by opera superstar Plácido Domingo. Anyway, it’s an undeniably creative movie. The animation is entertainingly off-kilter in a Tim Burton-ish sort of way, and snippets of pop songs from Elvis Presley to Mumford and Sons crop up unexpectedly, but somehow the whole seemed like less than the sum of its parts. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood. Still, I’d have to say it’s worth a look if you have an hour and a half to kill.
Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, by Keith Houston (Norton 2013). This is probably not a book to be seen reading in public if you want others to think you are cool. The subtitle gives you a good hint as to what you’ll find inside: an archaeological expedition into the origins of a handful of punctuation symbols and other symbols used in writing. Some are not so common, like the “pilcrow” or paragraph sign (¶), and the “manicule,” or little pointing hand. Some are quite common, like the pound sign, the @ symbol, and the ampersand. One is a recent invention that never really got off the ground: the so-called “interrobang,” which is a combination question mark and exclamation point (‽). And finally, the author discusses recent attempts to create a conventional “irony mark” for conveying that the author is joking or being sarcastic. (He concludes that the smiley-face emoticon is probably as good as we’re going to do.) Kind of interesting, if you like this sort of thing. I will add that the print in the book seemed unusually small to me, and many of his illustrations taken from old manuscripts were very hard for me make any sense of. But these may just be signs that I need bifocals.
Interstellar (B+). Director Chris Nolan (Inception) is back with another big-concept movie. I can’t say too much about the plot for fear of spoilers, but almost a month into the film’s release I think I can safely say it is about astronauts searching for habitable worlds other than Earth because Earth itself is getting increasingly less habitable as the 21st century goes on. Matthew McConaughey (Mud) plays the lead astronaut on the mission, while Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) plays some other scientist-type member of the crew. More than that, I cannot say. I definitely enjoyed it; although the run time is 169 minutes, I never got bored or looked at my watch. But I can’t quite give it an “A” grade because there’s just too much stuff that left me scratching my head and thinking, “Huh?” I understand that Nolan tried to stick to the known rules of science in creating the movie, but he gets into some pretty far-out theoretical physics along the way. As long as I turned my brain off and focused on the spectacle, I liked it just fine. If you’re into sci-fi, and especially if you enjoyed 2001: A Space Odyssey, you will probably enjoy this movie.