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Big Eyes: Blu-ray + Digital HD Review

Big Eyes (2014) movie poster Big Eyes

Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Tim Burton / Writers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski

Cast: Amy Adams (Margaret Keane), Christoph Waltz (Walter Keane), Danny Huston (Dick Nolan), Krysten Ritter (Dee-Ann), Jason Schwartzman (Ruben), Terence Stamp (John Canaday), Jon Polito (Enrico Banducci), Delaney Raye (Young Jane Keane), Madeleine Arthur (Older Jane Keane), James Saito (Judge), Farryn VanHumbeck (Lily), Guido Furlani (Dino Olivetti)

Buy Big Eyes from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + Digital HD DVD Instant Video

For most of 2014, many Oscar pundits assumed that Amy Adams was the frontrunner in the year's Best Actress race. There was the overdue factor: she had been nominated for five Oscars over the previous nine years and lost every time.
There was the fact that she had a lead role of substance in a movie scheduled to open on Christmas Day from awards darlings The Weinstein Company. That Adams was playing a real person in a true story was the cherry on top. Everything seemed to align for the 40-year-old whose body of work since her mid-Noughties breakout is stronger than virtually every other actress in that same period of time.

The one detail easily missed was that Big Eyes, the fortuitous project in question, was a Tim Burton film. Though among the best-known of directors, Burton has made hardly anything that competed for major honors. From Batman to Alice in Wonderland, his stylish films have regularly been recognized in technical categories. But Burton isn't known for being an actor's director or a prestige director. Even his most highly regarded films that almost fall in line with Academy tastes, like Big Fish and Sweeney Todd, have largely been snubbed by the Oscars and left to settle for Golden Globe contention. Perhaps that track record accurately conveys Burton's prowess, as a filmmaker whose immense technical gifts often taken precedence over his ability to tell a story.

The least Tim Burtony Tim Burton film since Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Big Eyes does not strike you as one of the director's usual, fanciful productions. The cast includes neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter, the visuals are uncharacteristically sunny and natural, and the subject matter is far from Burton's Gothic wheelhouse.

"Big Eyes" stars Amy Adams as Margaret Keane, an artist whose husband takes credit for her popular paintings of doe-eyed waifs.

We open in 1958 California with painter Margaret Ulbrich (Adams) leaving her husband and moving to San Francisco. She and her pre-teen daughter Jane (initially Delaney Raye) try to make it on their own. How they'll do that seems something of a mystery; apart from child support, Margaret's only apparent income is from her artwork, which sees her agreeing to sketch children's portraits for as little as $1 (half her reduced asking price). It is not finances as much as the possibility of losing custody of Jane that inspires Margaret to accept the spontaneous marriage proposal of Walter Keane (two-time Supporting Actor Oscar winner Christoph Waltz).

The charming Walter is also an artist. His paintings of French street scenes are moderately popular, but his true talent lies in salesmanship. He pays a jazz club owner (Jon Polito) to display both his and Margaret's paintings on the wall of the hall leading to the establishment's bathrooms. A minor scandal between owner and artist drums up some interest in the art. But it is Margaret's depictions of children with large, sad eyes that people want to buy. Walter takes credit for painting the doe-eyed waifs, largely to impress prospective buyers and increase sales. Before long, Margaret's iconic art catches on, aided no doubt by Walter's persuasive nature. By the time the couple is getting rich off mass-produced prints and posters, there is no way to undo the charade: Walter, who is secretly and legitimately a commercial realtor, is the painter and identified as such on everything from newspaper articles to a television show.

Margaret is never comfortable with the deception, but she goes along with it. She continues to produce big-eyed paintings in secret while Walter gets all the credit and fame, rubbing shoulders with the likes of such celebrity patrons as Joan Crawford. The truth is even withheld from Jane (now Madeleine Arthur), although she has her suspicions, and creates a falling out between Margaret and her one friend (Krysten Ritter).

Eventually, Margaret comes to her senses and does part ways with Walter, with the fiction intact. A year later, relocated to Hawaii and having become a Jehovah's Witness, the real artist of the family decides to reveal the truth, prompting a printed rebuttal, a slander and libel lawsuit, and a scandalous courtroom showdown finale.

The courtroom climax of "Big Eyes" putting ex-husband (Christoph Waltz) against (Amy Adams) plays like a farce, no matter how true to trial records it stays.

Big Eyes is written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the duo who penned Ed Wood, one of Burton's best and his only one to win an acting Oscar (Martin Landau took home the Supporting Actor award).
Taking their first screen credit in seven years, Alexander and Karaszewski have certainly found an interesting true story that many will not know coming in. Unfortunately, the story isn't much more interesting as a Tim Burton film than it is as a Wikipedia paragraph.

Burton's attention to detail and technical components manifests in some appealing period production design and costumes. A scene set on a San Francisco street full of pastel-colored shop signs knowingly wows you with the amount of work it must have required. As always, though, the allure of Burton's sumptuous production values has limits. At some point, you expect to forget about how the movie looks and just get lost in the characters, story, and drama. That never happens to the extent you hope it will, even with actors as skilled as Adams and Waltz in full command of the screen most of the time.

Their scarce, minimal supporting cast includes Jason Schwartzman as a gallery owner, Terence Stamp as a disapproving art critic, and Danny Huston as a journalist whose sporadic narration feels like an addition definitely conceived in post-production. As good as Waltz and Adams usually are, they too often here are saddled with stating the obvious as a master of BS and the accessory to fraud. That Walter is no longer alive enables the script to make him a full-fledged villain, a role that Waltz has regularly relished. But the proceedings are too often lacking subtlety and ambiguity. No matter how true to the official record it may be, the courtroom finale plays like a sitcom, stage or family comedy foray into the Hawaiian legal system.

That is certainly not how you wish or expect a Christmas Day-opening movie to end. As advantageous as that timing was for year-end lists and awards voting, it and the Weinstein backing unfairly elevate expectations to heights Big Eyes can't reach. The movie is too good to completely ignore and, were it unleashed in one of the first ten months of the year, it'd warrant savoring as a thoughtful alternative to teen-oriented multiplex fare.

The awards hopes that weighed down on Big Eyes largely proved to be misplaced. The film drew three Golden Globe nominations, for Best Actress and Actor in a Musical or Comedy and Best Original Song for Lana Del Rey's title theme. Adams won the Globe, repeating in the category she won a year earlier for American Hustle. Besides that NBC-televised January event, the movie was mostly absent from the season, save for some minor nods. It was a non-starter at the box office, quickly shedding theaters on its way to an underwhelming domestic gross of just under $15 million. Even on IMDb, a site where several Burton movies are slightly overrated, Big Eyes sets with a fairly average 7.0 user rating that is sure to plummet as the vote count rises.

The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment bring Big Eyes to stores this week on DVD and in the Blu-ray + Digital HD edition reviewed here.

Big Eyes: Blu-ray + Digital HD cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: April 14, 2015
Suggested Retail Price: $34.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on DVD ($29.98 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Blu-ray's 1.78:1 presentation shows off the pretty, vibrant visuals you expect a Tim Burton movie to deliver. It's worth noting that some of the CG-enhanced production design doesn't always stand up to the scrutiny of home viewing; in particular, a couple of composite San Francisco exteriors look quite artificial.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack features erratic volume levels, but otherwise does a good job of keeping dialogue, Danny Elfman score, and other sounds all crisp and even.

Tim Burton directs Amy Adams in a driveway scene. The real Margaret Keane humorously jokes that she really directed "Big Eyes" and Tim Burton took all the credit for it in this Los Angeles Q & A session.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

On Blu-ray, Big Eyes is joined by two HD bonus features.

"The Making of Big Eyes" (21:33) is a fairly routine but substantial featurette. It doles out behind-the-scenes footage, a wealth of cast and crew comments,

and some clips in an effort to convey the significance of this true story and the ambition in filming it.

The other extra is "Q & A Highlights" (33:55), which preserves bits from two publicity events held for the film. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are joined by the real Margaret Keane and her portrayer Amy Adams for a Los Angeles panel hosted by "Access Hollywood"'s Scott Mantz. In her only appearance for the film, Keane charms with her candor. The next Q & A, moderated by Entertainment Weekly's Anthony Breznican, assembles Adams, Tim Burton, Christoph Waltz, Jason Schwartzman, and Krysten Ritter and generates many laughs plus a thoughtful discussion of art that moves (including The Last Unicorn).

The disc opens with HD trailers for St. Vincent and One Chance. Neither is accessible by menu and Big Eyes' trailer isn't included at all, except in pieces of the featurette.

The menu plays score over a montage of clips, dedicating the bottom fourth of the frame to the disc's listings. Like others before it, this Weinstein Blu-ray neither resumes unfinished playback nor lets you set bookmarks.

Inside the blue keepcase, which is topped by a glossy slipcover repeating the same artwork below (even the unusual shot of Tim Burton), the lone insert supplies a code and directions for the Digital HD UltraViolet presentation that's included with your purchase.

Marital tensions flare at a party where Walter (Christoph Waltz) soaks up the attention for paintings actually done by Margaret (Amy Adams).

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Big Eyes falls short of expectations that are elevated on the intrigue of this fascinating true story and the great talent assembled here. Tim Burton fails to capitalize on a rare opportunity where story and characters could trump production design. Even with leads as accomplished as Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, this somehow plays like a modern ABC television series instead of the riveting feature film it sets out to be.

Blu-ray treats the film to a nice feature presentation and the two extras are solid, but some are sure to be disappointed by the lack of an audio commentary and, given reports from test screenings, deleted scenes. While the movie still warrants a look, you shouldn't go in expecting something spectacular.

Buy Big Eyes from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + Digital HD / DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
The Imitation Game St. Vincent Into the Woods Saving Mr. Banks Cutie and the Boxer
Amy Adams: American Hustle The Fighter Julie & Julia Doubt Man of Steel The Muppets
Christoph Waltz: Horrible Bosses 2 Django Unchained The Green Hornet | Danny Huston: Magic City: The Complete First Season
Golden Globe Best Actress (Musical or Comedy) Winners: My Week with Marilyn Silver Linings Playbook The Kids Are All Right
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski: Ed Wood That Darn Cat (1997)
Directed by Tim Burton:
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Frankenweenie Dark Shadows Alice in Wonderland

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Reviewed April 13, 2015.



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