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During the late 1950s and early 1960s, painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) had reached success beyond belief, revolutionizing the commercialization of popular art with his enigmatic paintings of waifs with big eyes. The bizarre and shocking truth would eventually be discovered, though: Walter's works were actually not created by him at all, but by his wife Margaret (Amy Adams). (From The Weinstein Company’s official synopsis)

 Big Eyes
It’s getting harder and harder to enjoy Tim Burton movies these days. The once unique director has slowly morphed into a cutesy, effects-heavy adaptation machine. Though I hesitate to speak to a filmmaker’s experience, I get the feeling that Tim Burton isn’t particularly fond of these movies, either. He appears to be engaging in the classic ‘one for them, one for me’ formula, making more personal, smaller-budgeted movies between popular, but terrible remakes/adaptations that feature Johnny Depp covered in make-up and acting obnoxiously (I get the feeling Depp also doesn’t really care about these movies). Unfortunately, these more cherished productions tend to reveal further shortfalls in his filmmaking skills. Though generally better reviewed than his super-expensive, tailor-made blockbusters, Big Fish, Corpse Bride, and Frankenweenie recycle the same overused fairytale references and tired daddy issues and are, ultimately, pretty lifeless. In the last 15 years, only Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street offered any real glimpse of what the Tim Burton of the 1980s and ‘90s had to offer.

This brings us to Big Eyes – the first time in a long time Burton has challenged himself creatively without stepping outside the comfort zone relatively homogenized filmography he cultivated for himself over the decades. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s screenplay fits Burton’s ‘real world’ mode (i.e.: movies that are anchored in a sense of reality) in that it is funny, but really not a comedy. The tone is supremely odd without completely stifling the experience. In a certain sense, the problematic push-and-pull between Burton-esque eccentricities and traditional dramatic tropes becomes the film’s strongest quality and the thing that sets Big Eyes apart from the usually biopic rabble. It is a tactic the director utilized beautifully when he made Ed Wood, but it worked a bit better in that case, because the quirk was already a integral part of the real-life Ed Wood’s career. When that movie switched gears from comedy to tragedy, the emotional impact was brutal. In the case of Big Eyes, it can be difficult to know which ‘dramatic’ moments are meant to be taken as jokes and which are supposed to be genuinely poignant beats. By the time Margaret discovers Walter’s real secret, the formula is normalized enough to develop real tension, but Burton never reaches those Ed Wood heights. At least he doesn’t overstate sentimentality, like he did when he made Big Fish.

 Big Eyes
I assume that Burton’s real interest in the subject was what Margaret and Walter Keane’s story has to say about artistic integrity. The obvious message is that Walter’s money-hungry approach is bad and that the sexist machine that perpetuates it is poisonous, but, under that is a story about the danger cultural critics pose to free expression. Had Walter not been exploiting his wife, Burton probably would’ve loved to make a movie about an artist that defeated the high society establishment with popular, maudlin, and corny paintings that meant more to the average person than Kandinsky, Pollock, or Mondrian. Sure, he has a predilection for swindling the working class and ‘cheapening’ the efforts of real artists, but his capitalistically-driven ideas did help break down some entrenched assumptions about the meaning of art and, as the movie mentions, pave the way for people like Andy Warhol.

Visually, Burton has a chance to revisit the late‘50s obsessions that informed Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Frankenweenie. Digital photography allows him to push the weird imagery pretty far, yet he’s careful not to turn Big Eyes into another grotesque CG-animated mess. When he does use special effects, they meet the emotional needs of the movie and the artificiality fits the kitsch of Margaret’s bizarre paintings. And, unlike the standardized stylization of most of Burton’s movies ( Batman Returns is perpetually steely, Sleepy Hollow consistently desaturated, Sweeney Todd is beholden to those rich red highlights, et cetera), the colour palette and degree of digital augmentations also fluctuate with Margaret’s emotional state. As she and Walter develop their relationship, the world looks like an exploded Easter egg with heavily processed pastels. When the romance darkens, so does the imagery and, as Margaret finds the courage to fight back, the colours are normalized and the edges are sharpened.

 Big Eyes
Amy Adams, who won a Golden Globe, is put in a very difficult position of being the straight-woman to an entire universe of high-strung and predominately shallow characters. Her performance is constantly melancholic, because she is constantly victimized, yet we have to believe she has it in her to rebel against Walter. Christoph Waltz’ job is slightly easier, as he’s basically playing the same guy he has been playing for Quentin Tarantino. His ‘usual’ fits the role well, though, because he’s required to be abusive and (one frightening sequence aside) harmless at the same time. His hilarious attempt at being his own lawyer is enough to earn the Golden Globe he didn’t win.

Video


Big Eyes was shot on Arri Alexa digital HD cameras and is presented here in 1080p, 1.78:1 video. Burton and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (only their second collaboration, after Dark Shadows) aim for an ‘idealistic’ postcard look that includes a lot of really soft blends, diffused light, and fuzzy backgrounds. The daylight scenes are so plush that any compression could turn the whole thing into a big blob of blocking noise. Fortunately, this is a very strong transfer and the fragile gradations appear smooth. The Hawaii sequences are particularly kaleidoscopic and the cleanliness of the hues can be very satisfying. The darker sequences (most of which are interiors) feature strong blacks and sharper edges, while still including those diffused highlights and pastel colours (occasionally, the white spots do appear a bit blue, which might be on purpose). Textures are tight, despite the smoothness, and the vital lines are crisp without creating any notable haloes.

 Big Eyes

Audio


Big Eyes is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The sound design isn’t particularly wild (because the material doesn’t call for it), but the channels are regularly engaged with general ambience and a couple of directional movements. Danny Elfman’s score sometimes sounds like a parody of quirky biopic music (the piano bits during sad moments can be absolutely horrible) with its dancing bells, guitars, and melodramatic string motifs, but fits the material and offers a wide swath of sound that fills out the speakers when sound effects are at a premium. The score is supported by a number of early ‘60s jazz standards. Despite the generally low-impact qualities of the track, volume levels are very high between the music and the dialogue.

Extras


  • The Making of Big Eyes (21:30, HD) – This fluffy featurette runs mostly on sound-bite-friendly cast and crew interviews, but does include some valuable discussion about the real story, including photographs and a quick word with Margaret Keane herself.
  • Q&A highlights (34:00, HD) – Footage from two post-screening Q&As – one features producers/screenwriters Alexander & Karaszewski, Amy Adams, and Keane; the other features Burton, Waltz, Adams, Krysten Ritter, and Jason Schwartzman.


 Big Eyes

Overall


Big Eyes isn’t quite the movie Tim Burton needed to re-validate his rocky career, but it is the kind of thing that reminds us how much we miss his incredibly unique brand of filmmaking. It’s definitely worth seeing and I hope it finds a wider audience that will encourage Burton to stay away from meaningless adaptations and remakes. Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray looks fabulous, which is important, given the film’s delicate digital photography, and its DTS-HD MA soundtrack is rich enough to give major depth to a generally soft soundtrack. The extras are fluffy, but not a waste of space.

 Big Eyes

 Big Eyes
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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