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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Tim Burton's BIG EYES, Mike Leigh's MR. TURNER, and ZERO MOTIVATION!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

How much you like or don's like BIG EYES will probably depend on how much you actually buy into what it's selling. I'm not talking about whether or not Walter Keane (as played to the hilt by Chrisoph Waltz) actually painted the hundreds of portraits of sad children with oversized eyes or not. I think the film (and history) proves that he didn't. But Waltz's portrayal is more like watching a ringmaster on speed than a seasoned con artist, who began his painting career selling Paris cityscapes that he also didn't actually paint. But perhaps it was a larger-than-life personality that was required to overwhelm and ultimately seduce an artist like Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), who lacked confidence in her work and allowed herself to be convinced that if people found out the captivating works were done by a woman, that no one would take them or her seriously.

Director Tim Burton and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who worked with Burton previously on his finest film ED WOOD) make it perfectly clear that in the beginning Margaret was a more or less willing participant in the scam, and there's no getting around the fact that Walter was a master at playing the part of the sensitive artist, who feels deeply for the suffering children of the world shown in his wife's "Big Eyes" paintings, which were immensely popular in the 1950s and early '60s. But after about 40 minutes, Walter began to exhaust me. It turns out you can get bored watching someone take advantage of someone else for years on end. Who knew?

Since Margaret doesn't really get the courage to leave her husband until late in the film, so most of BIG EYES is about watching the con escalate to proportions that no one could have predicted. Walter was the first person to mass-market print and postcard reproductions of artwork and sell them to a public that couldn't afford the originals, which were being purchased by Hollywood celebrities and corporate executives for quite a hefty sum. This level of commercialization and popularization of art even pre-dates Warhol (as Walter was keen to remind people).

What BIG EYES lacks is a sense of Margaret the artist, instead of just Margaret the hapless victim, being controlled by her husband and turned into a painting factory, churning out dozens of these paintings a week to feed the growing demand. Burton almost can't help but take a comical look at these events, tossing in actors like Jason Schwartzman, Krysten Ritter, Danny Huston and Terence Stamp (as a mercilessly caddy art critic who always hated the Big Eyes paintings) for comic relief. But the truth is, Margaret's tale is an exceedingly sad one, and Burton seems unwilling or unable to admit that to himself. I wouldn't expect him to get lost in the melancholy, but at the same time his treatment of her life story borders on flippant.

The film's final act focuses on Margaret finally admitting in public that she was the artist of these waifs with enlarged eyes, and the trial that soon followed, in which she sued Walter for millions owed to her. The judge's suggestion to have both of them spend about an hour painting one of these portraits is simple, and Walter's use of time is almost too ridiculous to watch unfold, even though it happened exactly that way. Outside of Adams' understated performance as the timid Margaret (exactly the kind of performance that will go unnoticed by many Academy voters), BIG EYES is in no way exceptional as a piece of cinema, but as a document of a footnote in pop art history, it fares a bit better. It's certainly not an unwatchable work, but I can't imagine that anyone beyond Burton devotees will find it essential either.

As much as I dearly love the more intimate, purely emotional works of writer-director Mike Leigh (SECRETS AND LIES, VERA DRAKE and his previous film, ANOTHER YEAR), one of my absolute favorite films by him is TOPSY-TURVY, his 1999 exploration of the creation of the musical “The Mikado” by Gilbert & Sullivan. There was something about the way Leigh dove into the troubled state of the artistic mind that really drew me in, and so when I heard that the filmmaker was tackling the life of the great British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner, I was quiet thrilled.

Coincidentally, just recently I saw the latest Frederick Wiseman documentary called NATIONAL GALLERY (about the famed London museum), in which are housed several of the finest works from J.M.W. Turner, so my interest in the subject was further piqued. Leigh regular Timothy Spall (who was also in TOPSY-TURVY) portrays the admired painter, who for quite some time was looked at as an outsider. The film skillfully captures that transition period (the 1830s until his passing in 1851), when his experiments in light and seascapes that frequently featured majestic ships began to get noticed and admired by other artists. His progression into the early stages of what later became Impressionist art was viewed as downright scandalous by some.

MR. TURNER does a tremendous job of allowing us even the slightest glimpse of Turner's creating process, but he was a man of few words and only a few more grunts that only those closest to him even understood. Among those were the women in his life, and what an odd array they were. First there was his ever-loyal housekeeper Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), whom he sometimes had casual sex with when the mood struck him. Then there is his ex-girlfriend Sarah (Ruth Sheen), with whom he has a child and nothing else beyond contempt. Finally, there is the sweet widow, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), whom he deeply cared for and eventually moved in with in her seaside home. It goes without saying that none of these relationships were conventional, or even healthy, but they all shaped and reflected what was going on in his mind at the time, and they are crucial to understanding him.

I was particularly moved by some early scenes between Turner and his aging and frail father (Paul Jesson), whose passing had a profound impact on the painter's emotional well-being. But it's the scenes between the grunting and groaning Turner and Mrs. Booth that help us form a great deal of our views regarding the artist, who often has the disposition of a wild animal, which is nicely countered by her charm and serenity. Also of great interest in Mr. Turner is his interactions with other painters of the time, whose praise he greatly appreciated and whose scorn angered and wounded him deeply. Art shows at the Royal Academy of Arts are especially entertaining, as the great painters of the day go from room to room praising and tearing down, seemingly at random.

The winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Best Actor prize this year, Spall is phenomenal. His performance almost dares us to find Turner in any way charming or physically appealing, and yet that's exactly what he does with Bailey by his side, looking at him as only a great lover would. And in her eyes, we see his better self. MR. TURNER succeeds at giving us a fairly complete portrait of an artist and a man, while still managing to be unconventional in its emphasis and being a perfect Mike Leigh film by allowing his actors to completely inhabit these characters for weeks or months before he ever turns the camera on them.

Having met and talked with Leigh before, I also feel like MR. TURNER is one of his most personal films. Although the filmmaker isn't as gruff as Turner, he's not far off either, and that in no way diminishes the scope and power of his art. This is an undeniably beautiful (thanks to Dick Pope's stunning cinematography) and in-depth work that helps define what "inspiration" means to certain creative minds, and it reminds us that true beauty can often arise from the most unlikely soil.

In what I'm hoping is meant to be a dark comedy, this winner of the Best Narrative Feature prize at the Tribeca Film Festival focuses on the female soldiers on an Israeli Army base that features as much fighting among the troops as it does against enemy forces. ZERO MOTIVATION centers on two best friends, both of whom are being driven borderline insane waiting for their service stint to end. Zohar (Dana Ivgy) is an emotional powder keg who actively bucks the system and her commanding officer Rama (Shani Klein), who only cares about elevating her career and the impression the male officers have of her all-female unit. While Zohar's bestie Daffi (Nelly Tagar) dreams of nothing more than running out her service in her dream location, Tel Aviv, and joins an officer training program in the hopes of being sent there, which translates into Zohar feeling like Daffi is abandoning her.

It takes about five minutes to realize that the women at this particular post (or at least this group who only seem to be secretarial work) are looked at as servants and second-class citizens—fetching coffee and snacks, shredding documents and just generally pushing papers that mean nothing to the function of the base. Even with so little to do, the female soldiers still find ways to do their job poorly and waste a phenomenal amount of time playing video games and avoiding work at all costs. First-time feature director Talya Lavie has done an admirable job capturing the inanity of paperwork and office jobs, as well as the frustration these women feel every minute of their lives being overlooked, or worse, looked through.

The interactions among the women, especially when they aren't in the office, are priceless and so biting and funny that they make some of the office antics seem pedestrian. The film actually opens with a fresh face (Yonit Tobi) coming onto the base, whom Daffi assumes is her replacement after she goes off to Tel Aviv. But the truth about this new recruit is so much darker, and it changes the dynamic of the office in unexpected ways, and it sets a tone for the rest of the film that seems to be "Don't take anything for granted, including friendship."

There are few things that happen on this remote desert base that don't have lasting ramifications. One of my favorite characters is Irena (Tamara Klingon), a soldier of Russian extract, who talks dirty and acts dirtier (according to her), but something happens to her that is both humbling and utterly creepy, but it also seems to transform her in likely positive ways. ZERO MOTIVATION is more M*A*S*H and less PRIVATE BENJAMIN in its portrayal of inane military life. Cynicism runs deep in its veins and with good reason. The film illustrates how office boredom can bring a group together, but it also makes them turn on each other eventually.

The performances are strong and purposeful, and I'm really curious to see any of these actors in something else soon, just to see what kind of range they have. It's a film that isn't afraid to wear its edge proudly, and in a strange way it's inspiring to know that boring, repetitive jobs are the same all over the world. When you tire of the standard-issue holiday fare, you might want to consider ZERO MOTIVATION.

-- Steve Prokopy
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