Big Eyes

Whilst a far from conventional story, Big Eyes may just be the most conventional film that Tim Burton has ever made. More a movie about ego and emotional manipulation than about art, Big Eyes tells the story of painter Margaret Keane and her battle to be rightfully acknowledged as the creator of artwork for which her scheming husband Walter took credit. In fact for much of the film, Margaret is, quite literally, confined to the shadows of her husband’s ‘success’. Hidden away in attics and locked studio spaces to churn out innumerable paintings of ‘big eyed’ children, Margaret’s lack of self-esteem is no match for Walter’s bluster and bullying. It is easy to see how the nature of Keane’s art might appeal to Burton, the images in the paintings very much something we might expect to see in one of the gothic tales for which he is renowned. However, in this instance, Burton has resisted the urge to delve into the darkness, instead opting for a story that, whilst fairly straightforward in its narrative trajectory, is yet another example of truth being stranger than fiction.

Big Eyes poster

Having absconded from her marriage with only a suitcase and her young daughter, Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) arrives in San Francisco with no money, no work experience, no connections and a crippling lack of self-worth. Out of necessity more so than any sense of ambition to find success as an artist, Margaret starts selling her paintings at craft fairs. It is at such an event that she meets the loquacious Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a man whose ego, deceit and delusions know no bounds. The naïve Margaret becomes swept up in Walter’s grandiose tales of his own talent and soon enough the pair are married. It isn’t long before Walter starts taking credit as the artist responsible for Margaret’s paintings and this is where the narrative action really begins. A canny self-promoter, Walter convinces all and sundry (including himself) that he really is the artist responsible for all of the big eyes images which, whilst extremely popular, are dismissed by the art community as kitsch and crass. Art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp) describes Walter as an “appalling, grotesque, tasteless hack.”  Margaret, meanwhile, serves as nothing more than a production line, all but invisible to both those feting Walter for his talent (including celebrities and dignitaries) and those deriding him as nothing more than a populist pretender (such as Jason Schwartzmann’s pompous gallery owner) .

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As disgusting, delusional and deceitful as Walter is, it is hard to muster a lot of sympathy for Margaret. She perpetuates Walter’s deception by refusing to step in and set the record straight, even lying to her daughter to maintain the ruse. Perhaps we need more information about the circumstances surrounding the dissolution of her first marriage to better understand why she was so willing to accede to Walter’s deceptions for so long. I mean, she challenges him on a couple of occasions but never really stands up to him with any conviction. Ultimately though, there is still plenty to admire even if you can’t find yourself overly enamoured by any of the characters.

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The screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski balances the serious with the satirical and the film is technically and aesthetically attractive, rich with a vibrant colour palette.  There are only a couple of particularly recognisable Burton-esque moments, one of which is a scene in a supermarket where Margaret visualises everybody as though her paintings have come alive. Adams plays Margaret as somebody who certainly seems to be feeling something, but is unable to articulate her emotions to her husband, or anybody else for that matter, remaining somewhat inert in her own story. Waltz hams it up, perhaps too much at times, seemingly determined to compensate for Adams’ low-key performance. There are minor characters such as Margaret’s only friend DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter) and a newspaper journalist (Danny Huston) who really bring nothing of consequence to the story; Huston’s Dick Nolan providing a voice-over that doesn’t tell us anything we can’t see playing out on the screen. Big Eyes might not be Burton’s best work, but it is refreshing to see him take on something that challenges our perceptions of him and the types of films he makes.

2015 Nikon Walkley Press Photography Exhibition

The Nikon Walkley Press Photography Exhibition is on now at Brisbane Powerhouse featuring images of heartbreak, triumph, jubilation and devastation from Australian photo-journalists working at home and abroad. Presented by the Walkley Foundation, the exhibition showcases the work of finalists and winners from the Nikon Walkley Awards for Excellence in Photojournalism.

Nikon Walkley

Selected from more than 2000 images submitted for consideration, the photographs featured in the exhibition include powerful images from war-torn Afghanistan and Syria, action shots from the international sporting arena, essays on life in rural and regional Australia and some very personal images of the human experience from around the world.

The exhibition continues at Brisbane Powerhouse until Sunday, April 26 and admission is absolutely FREE.

Inherent Vice

There is no doubt that many will find Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest offering to be a somewhat befuddling and alienating experience, while others will no doubt embrace the madcap narrative, crazy characters and altogether strange goings-on that make Inherent Vice a truly unique motion picture. This is not a film that makes is necessarily easy for an audience to embrace. It is a confusing mélange of pot, paranoia, murder, mystery, heartbreak and humour in which Joaquin Phoenix – teaming with Anderson again following their collaboration on The Master – is mumbling, bumbling, mutton-chopped private detective Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello in Los Angeles in 1970. Anderson has never been afraid to dish up characters with off-kilter personalities, from John C Reilly’s lonely cop in Magnolia to Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in Punch Drunk Love or even Phoenix’s turn as Freddie Quell in The Master, and Doc Sportello is another great addition to Anderson’s gallery of misfits. Adapted by Anderson from the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice is a private eye film that starts off conventionally enough before veering off to become something utterly unique.

Inherent Vice poster

Proceedings get underway just as almost every other classic private eye story does; an alluring female slinks her way into the orbit of the disheveled investigator and uses her feminine wiles to send our hero on a mission that is always much more complex than if first seems. In this instance, the femme in question is Sportellos’ ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), the woman for whom he still pines and whose cry for help he is unable to resist.  You see, Shasta’s new squeeze is real estate bigwig Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), whose wife intends to have him abducted and committed to a mental institution. A simple mission to foil the abduction becomes much more complicated due to Sportello’s perpetually stoned state and the myriad obstacles that he encounters along the way, not the least of which is vindictive LAPD Detective Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).

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Anderson is no stranger to the melding the serious with the comic (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) and he does it again here with a deadpan riff on the last vestiges of the counter-culture movement and the transformation of LA into ubiquitous suburban sprawl; neighbourhoods being levelled to make way for new housing developments and the likes of Sportello regarded as burnt out relics of the past. A litany of characters flitter in and out of the narrative, including a District Attorney (Reese Witherspoon) who finds Sportello both infuriating and irresistible. There is also Jena Malone as a woman who recruits Sportello to locate her missing husband (Owen Wilson), Benicio Del Toro as a solicitor, Martin Short as a dentist who may, or may not, be the head of an international drug cartel and Maya Rudolph as a receptionist at the medical centre from which Sportello runs his business. However, it is Hong Chau who steals the supporting limelight as the hilariously straight talking prostitute Jade.

The plot becomes increasingly chaotic and elusive as the story progresses, relying heavily on coincidence and happenstance to progress the action. The cinematography and production design effectively evoke the mood of the time and the score by Jonny Greenwood ensures the film sounds every bit as kooky and colourful as it looks. Throw in Joanna Newsom as the unreliable narrator Sortilege, a prophetess of sorts whose voice-over includes, apparently, passages taken directly from Pynchon’s novel, and you have something that defies any attempt at pigeonholing.

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Inherent Vice is a hodgepodge of influences and ideas that have been thrown together to create a film that is as exasperating as it is exhilarating in its sheer differentness. It takes a lot of skill to make something look this messy. Although decidedly lacking in coherence for much of the time, with Phoenix in fine fettle as the addled gumshoe, there is plenty of pleasure to be found. It is certainly not Anderson’s best work, but it is pretty darn good nevertheless.

The Future is Now

So, who are going to be the next musical stars to emerge from Brisbane?  Who fill be following in the footsteps of our most recent musical success stories?  Brisbane has been the breeding ground for so many great musicians for so many years that it is always exciting to discover the next batch of talented young music industry professionals. Well, the best place to start a journey of musical discovery is the Student Showcase at the Music Industry College in Fortitude Valley.

MIC Showcase

Music Industry College is an accredited independent senior secondary school which offers a curriculum for year 11 and 12 students that is “contextualised to suit a career in the music industry.”  Students attending the school can develop the necessary knowledge to pursue a career in the music industry, either as performers or in other capacities, such as technical, promotional, managerial or production roles. As such the teaching staff at Music Industry College bring a wide range of industry experience to their roles and includes members of bands such as The Boat People and The Winnie Coopers.

The likes of Thelma Plum and 2015 Queensland Music Awards finalist Sahara Beck are recent graduates from Music Industry College.

The first Music Industry College Student Showcase for 2015 is on Monday night (March 23) at the MIC campus at 38 Berwick Street, Fortitude Valley and entry is just $10.00.

For more information about Music Industry College, visit their website or follow them on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

Top Five

Over the last few decades or so, there seems to be very few performers who have been able to successfully make the transition from stand-up or sketch comedy into motion pictures. By successfully, I mean translating the style and personality that has made them so popular in the first place into entertaining characters and narratives on screen. Obviously there are exceptions – such as Bill Murray – but for whatever reason, hilariously funny comedy performers have generally been unable to replicate their greatness in films, at least with any kind of consistency. Of course, comedians have featured prominently in hugely successful movies (the likes of Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell spring to mind), but they have often had to compromise aspects of their comedic persona in doing so or simply rehash the same character types time and time again. I mean, Murphy has yet to make a film anywhere near as funny as his classic Raw or Delirious stand-up shows and Chris Rock is another great comedy performer who has failed to replicate his stand-up success in movies. There is no doubt that Rock is a very funny man, yet his film performances have, until now, failed to capture or capitalise upon his gifts as a comedian. With his latest film Top Five, Rock goes some way to rectifying that with a film that is both funny and thought-provoking in its examination of this very issue.

Top Five poster

Essentially playing a version of himself, Rock is Andre Allen, a famed stand-up performer who has transitioned to Hollywood as the star of a series of ridiculous cop movies – the premise of which I won’t give away here – that have left him feeling somewhat unfulfilled. His attempt to move into more serious roles has been met with derision by critics and audiences alike and he is about to marry a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) who, by her own admission, needs the wedding and the associated media circus (televised ceremony, celebrity guest list, network-sponsored bachelor party) that goes with it because she ‘has no talent’ to otherwise find the fame she so desperately seeks. A recovering alcoholic, Allen is at a crossroads when he reluctantly accedes to an interview with New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) that ultimately forces him to confront the comedy career that he has seemingly left behind.

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Essentially, the narrative comprises Andre and Chelsea walking and talking. Initially resistant to revealing too much about himself, Andre lets his guard down and introduces Chelsea to the various people and places of significance in his life. We follow Andre and Chelsea as they stroll the streets of New York, their wanderings interspersed with flashbacks as both characters reflect on key moments from their past. This is a simple idea executed very well due to great performances from both leads. Dawson (Trance) is an actress willing to tackle edgy material and almost always delivers strong performances, while this is possibly Rock’s best film performance yet, even though he seems at his most comfortable during the brief stand-up routine he delivers late in the film when Chelsea and Andre visit a comedy club. Whilst there are plenty of laughs to be had, Top Five also explores the contradictions and insecurities that plague such performers, exemplified by an interaction between Andre and his father (played by Broadway legend Ben Vereen) in which Andre becomes the brunt of the jokes and doesn’t like it at all.

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As Andre’s minder, right hand man and best friend Silk, JB Smoove is an amusing presence, while Cedric the Entertainer features as the over-the-top Jazzy Dee. Not surprisingly given Rock’s status within the comedy world, there are cameos galore from rappers and fellow comedians, many of whom are literally playing themselves. With Take Five, the 50-year-old Rock, who also wrote and directed, has delivered a film that comes closer to the hard-hitting, irreverent comedy his fans love more so than anything he has done previously, all the while delivering a film that explores the artifice of celebrity, racial politics, relationships, the battle to beat addiction and the conflicting expectations of performers and their audiences. Authentic and hilarious, Top Five may just be Chris Rock’s best movie so far.

Focus

There are some movies that, no matter how stylish and ostensibly well-made they may be, are almost instantly forgettable the moment you leave the cinema. They are enjoyable enough at the time but fail to resonate beyond the moment of consumption and the Will Smith-starring Focus is just such a film. It’s pretty enough to look at and the cast all go about their business is a mostly competent way, but Focus suffers from the fact that it doesn’t match the standard of those films that have gone before it. You see, Focus is a caper film in which the various twists and turns of the narrative are seemingly designed to make the whole thing seem a bit cleverer than it really is. There is nothing overly original here and Will Smith is certainly no George Clooney type in that he lacks the necessary charm to make us overlook his criminal behaviours and like him anyway.

Focus poster

Oozing all the generic features of a caper movie – attractive people lying and double-crossing each other, a super-slick seasoned grifter taking on a precocious upstart, luxurious locales and increasingly elaborate scams – there isn‘t much in Focus that hasn’t been done before with regard to the basic premise. Of course the players, the locations and the swindles may change, but ultimately this plays out like an extended episode of British television show Hustle, albeit taking itself a little bit more (too) seriously. Yes, there are some lighter moments and the on-screen chemistry between Smith and Aussie starlet-of-the-moment Margot Robbie seems authentic despite their characters engaging in a relationship that is anything but. Smith’s Nicky Spurgeon is a master conman who runs a large group of pickpockets, scammers and tricksters who engage in all manner of deceptions, raking in millions of dollars from their unsuspecting marks. Jess Barrett (Robbie) is a glamorous new-kid-on-the-block with big ambitions whose ‘talents’ draw the notice of Nicky and soon the pair are partners in both crime and coitus.

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Whilst there has been some praise for the inter-racial romance, which is definitely a rarity in mainstream films, Focus certainly fits the Hollywood model in other areas, such as the fact that Jess relies on her appearance – swimsuits, figure-hugging dresses – to seduce her victims and is only invited to join Nicky’s crew after she has slept with him. Needless to say, once her services are no longer required, she is promptly discarded, only to re-appear in his orbit a few years later as their respective scams become intertwined. To her credit, Robbie makes a reasonably good fist of her role and her repartee with Smith is amusing at times. The opening part of the film in which the crew swipe all manner of items from myriad victims amidst the hustle and bustle of busy New Orleans is the most exciting part of the film before it becomes bogged down in a much more elaborate, and utterly unlikely, scenario involving a bunch of Formula 1 team owners who must collectively be the most gullible group of characters seen on screen for quite some time.

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With sleight-of-hand artist and self-proclaimed ‘gentleman thief’ Apollo Robbins serving as a consultant, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa make every effort to keep the audience guessing and, as such, the ending may well come as a surprise for some, but the fact that we learn so little about the characters other than their penchant for pilfering makes it hard to care too much about what happens to anybody. The good-looking stars and good-looking locations, which include New York and Buenos Aires, help you overlook what is a fairly typical story. There are plenty of elaborate tricks played out – including an extended sequence at a football game featuring Law and Order’s BD Wong sporting a comical (but perhaps unintentionally so) moustache and mannerisms – but ultimately Focus flounders due to a lack of originality and a distinct absence of any significant character development.