Tag Archives: Amy Adams

Big Eyes (2015)

Whether or not Margaret Keane’s paintings of children with enormous, saucer-like eyes are any good as art can be debated. What can’t be debated is this. Keane, who was born in 1927 in Kentucky as Peggy Doris Hawkins, should have been an American success story.

In the mid-1950s Keane left her first husband and moved to San Francisco to establish herself as an artist. She started off as a single mother without a penny to her name in an art world that barely acknowledged female painters even existed. By 1964, she had sold thousands, probably tens of thousands of images worth millions of dollars. But Margaret Keane never got to enjoy her celebrity. Instead, her second husband Walter, who marketed her paintings as his own, got fêted, wined, dined, written about, and ultimately very rich off of his wife’s work.

Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams, as Margaret and Christopher Waltz (the Nazi from Inglorious Basterds) and directed by Tim Burton asks why. Why did Margaret Keane not only allow an obvious fraud to take credit for her art, but kept producing it? Why did she lie to her daughter, and ultimately to herself? The most obvious explanation, sexism, is true, but it’s not enough.

In fact, to attribute what happened to Margaret Keane exclusive to sexism is to become Walter Keane.

As a single mother trying to sell her artwork in the misogynistic art world of 1950s, Margaret Keane would have faced discrimination. But why didn’t Walter, a gifted salesman and bullshit artist, encourage her, push her to overcome her obstacles? In fact, the appeal of Margaret Keane’s “big eye” images might have come from the very sexism that kept her out of the art world in the first place. The San Francisco art world of the 1950s and 1960s, as Burton makes clear, was a dull, insufferable place, a bastion of male “privilege” where derivative, uninspired abstract art was elevated above anything that could have had real popular appeal. There was a hunger for paintings that expressed a woman’s perspective, and Keane, an attractive female artist, might have become a big star. It was in Walter’s selfish interest to convince Margaret that, as a woman, she didn’t stand a chance when, in fact, she might have.

But there’s another, more baffling question. If Margaret Keane allowed her husband to bully her into letting him take credit for her paintings, why did Walter want people to think he created the “big eye” images in the first place? Keane’s paintings are obviously from the female perspective. A grown man painting big eyed child after big eyed child looks more like a creepy pedophile than a great artist. Walter Keane was more than a Llewyn Davis. He’s not an untalented mediocrity producing derivative work that, however derivative, at least expresses something about himself. He’s an utter fraud. In fact, he not only robs Margaret, he robs himself. Walter is a gifted salesman. He could have easily established himself as Margaret’s agent and business manager, revelled in his own gift to market an unconventional form of art over the heads of stuffy art critics to the people. Americans admire great salesmen over great artists anyway.

I think Burton is getting at something deeper than a film about sexism. He’s exploring the differences between the idea of creating art and marketing art. Anybody who’s written a novel or a piece of music, created a painting or a piece of sculpture knows that expressing yourself and selling the way you’ve expressed yourself are different, often contradictory skills. To create a work of art you have to be ruthlessly self-critical, to consider its failures your failures, to dig deeper and deeper into yourself until you collapse in front of what you consider an unfinished work. To market your creation, you have to throw the car into reverse, forget about your failings. You have to bullshit yourself into thinking you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. You not only have to lie to other people. You have to lie to yourself. Margaret, as an artist, couldn’t sell what she painted. Walter, as a salesman, couldn’t paint what he sold. Together they become a marketing juggernaut, but destroyed each other in the process.

Amy Adams and Christopher Waltz are perfect as Margaret and Walter Keane.

Adams, a naturalistic actor, can express emotion without saying a word. She manages to build the character of Margaret Keane as a a complex, three-dimensional woman. Margaret Keane is both supremely confident and yet utterly lost. She can churn out painting after painting and still delude herself into thinking she couldn’t possibly take credit for them herself. Her very emotional sincerity allows her to lie to her daughter, to undermine the little girl’s sense of reality, the worst possible form of child abuse.

Christopher Waltz is a German actor playing that most American of American roles, the bullshit artist. The fact that he’s not a native English speaker, that his American accent is fake, a mask he put on for the movie, not only let’s him build the character of Walter Keane. It makes him Walter Keane. Waltz, as an American, is a fraud. He’s a German who’s not only pretending to be an American. He’s a German who becomes an American by the very act of pretending to be an American. We sense the depths underneath his bland, WASPY good looks, the demon lying in wait behind the glib talk, the friendly handshake and the easy smile. When he tries to burn Margaret (and her daughter) out of her studio, it’s terrifying. When he tries to represent himself in front of a clearly sceptical judge, it’s hilarious, and pathetic. Walter not only has a fool for a client. He has a fool for a lawyer.

Final Note: Although Margaret won her suit against Walter in court, the award of 4 million dollars was later revoked.

Her (2013)

Last month, in Oakland, a group of protesters smashed the window of a Google bus, one of the private shuttles that takes employees from their overpriced homes in San Francisco to their high paying jobs at Google’s Mountain View “campus” 40 miles away in Santa Clara County. While I appreciated the methods — there’s never a bad way to terrorize gentrifiers — I was sceptical of the goal. Trying to keep San Francisco open to the working class struck me as being an exercise in futility.

After seeing “Her,” the latest film by Spike Jonze, however, I’ve changed my mind. Not only must the Google bus protests go on, they need to become even more militant. Try to imagine a world where sex is a bit like masturbating to a TED talk. Then gather your rocks, buy some eggs, smash some windows, and slash as many tires as you can before you get arrested. The scum that rides the Google buses must being driven out of San Francisco by any means necessary.

Her shows us the world that the digital oligarchs at Google and Apple will create if they’re not stopped. Set in Los Angeles at an unnamed time — let’s use that old science fiction cliché “in not too distant future” — there is no working class. There are no poor people, and no ugly people. There aren’t a lot of particularly beautiful people either. There are, of course, quite a few good looking people, but nobody who glows with an excess of life, nobody with any real passion or fire. Even though Her is technically a love story, and even though it stars attractive, A-list actresses like Roony Mara and Amy Adams, the only thing that really inspires us is property, especially the exquisite skyline of Los Angeles, digitally altered to look a bit like Shanghai, and the hero’s apartment, which hangs over the glittering metropolis like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear.

The hero, a man named Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix may give us a hint as to where the working class went. Perhaps they all joined the meritocracy. A former writer at the LA Weekly, Twombly now works for a company called Beautiful Handwritten Letters Dot Com, where he gets paid to be a professional Cyrano, composing love notes for people who, we can assume, lack the requisite literary skill to do it themselves. Twombly is not a programmer or a digital guru, and the kind of writing he does stuck me as the kind of work they’d farm out to low paid freelancers at content mills like Demand Media rather than to high powered copywriters like Don Draper. But he lives in a beautiful condominium. He never lacks for money. He travels whenever he wants. All of his friends seem to be Ivy League professionals. His ex-wife has a PHD. His blind date went to Harvard, and the receptionist at Beautiful Handwritten Letters Dot Com is dating a lawyer. We are, in other words, deeply embedded in the American meritocracy. If anybody in Twombly’s world got anything less than a perfect score on their SATs, I’d be surprised.

Financial success notwithstanding, Twombly is an unhappy man. With his gift of gab and nice guy charm, he never lacks for female attention, but he’s still pining for his ex-wife, Roony Mara. A blind date with a woman played by Olivia Wilde goes bad after she reveals herself to be vindictive and emotionally needy. A newly divorced friend, a game designer played by Amy Adams, comes off like a potential soul mate, but there’s little or no sexual chemistry. Theodore Twombly seems destined to end up as a lonely, celibate old bachelor, his sex life confined to cyber sex and masturbation.

Whether or not Twombly, at any time, ever engages in anything more than cybersex and masturbation is the question Her poses. Her’s version of Los Angeles feels like a city that could actually exist. It’s been cleaned up a bit and whatever government they have has obviously spent quite a bit of money for public transportation — we never see anybody drive a car — but we can still imagine living there. Artificial Intelligence, on the other hand, has advanced to the point where an operating system can act like a human being. A new system, OS1, designed by a company named Element Software, can feel emotion, even evolve intellectually. After Twombly downloads OS1 onto his smart phone, and it reveals itself to be the voice and personality of Scarlett Johansson, he quickly falls in love. It’s fun to speculate what would have happened had Samantha, the name Twombly’s copy of OS1 gives to “her” self, had had the voice and personality of Bill Gates or Richard Stallman, but that’s another, and probably better movie.

Scarlett Johansson is a talented actress. Without a single visual, she establishes a coherent personality, intelligent yet sexy, gentle yet domineering. Part administrative assistant, part second wife, part nanny, she seduces Twombly with the tone of her voice, and, more importantly, with her words, turning the tables on the professional love letter writer, wrapping him around her little digital finger before he’s even validated the software online. Johansson is so good, in fact, that there are negative reviews of Her on the Internet by “intersectional” feminists complaining they made Samantha too beautiful and too “cisgender.” She’s a collection of bits and bytes you fools. Then again, perhaps the “intersectional” feminists are onto something.

Samantha never quite works for me as a machine. She seems a lot more like a woman on the other end of a cell phone. I interact with people all the time on the Internet I never plan to meet. It doesn’t make them machines. The concept isn’t even particularly novel. Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson had a friendship for decades, even though they never met. They wrote letters. Needless to say, Twomby and Samantha are no Emily Dickinson or Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Indeed, while we’re told, repeatedly, that Twombly is a great poet — Samantha collects a group of his best love letters and sends them into a publisher — he comes off more like a talented writer of Hallmark cards. Romantic dialog in Her is a collection of insipid platitudes. “You’re sweet” or “oh you’re amazing” is about the best we’re going to get. The banal language carries over into his “relationship” with Samantha. Phoenix is a decent physical actor. When he thinks Samantha has cut him off for good, he manages to bumble convincingly enough through the lobby of an office building to demonstrate that he’s upset. But don’t expect any real despair.

“Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living. You said I killed you–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” in the bland world of Her would probably just be labeled “inappropriate.”

Spike Jonze seems to have turned 30-year-olds into retirees, people who not only lack bodies, but who lack any desire for one. If the publisher Samantha sends the collection of Twombly’s love notes immediately decides to publish them as a book, then it has less to do with Twombly’s talent than the fact that the Los Angeles of Her has become so colorless and without passion that any man who can sling phrases like “you will always be my friend as well as my lover” is never going to want for admirers. Samantha is just as bland. Sure, we all know it’s Scarlett Johansson, but she comes off more like just another sexless denizen of the meritocracy. When she “evolves” beyond her “relationship” with Twombly — it has something to do with hanging out with other operating systems and reading Alan Watts — it feels perfectly natural. Samantha, like any soccer mom who has gotten the kids off to school, has decided that her pilates classes and her “spirituality” come before hopping into the sack with her husband, who’s probably at work anyway.

That is, perhaps, the point. Her is a dystopia, a gentle dystopia along the lines of Brave New World rather than a savage surveillance and torture state like the Oceania of 1984, but a dystopia nonetheless. There may be no poverty in the Los Angeles of the future — either that or they just manage to keep the Bangladeshis who make the clothes and the Chinese workers at Foxconn who make the smartphones well hidden — but it’s still a horrifying reality. Element software has designed an operating system that can charm any man out of his shorts right down into a masturbatory passivity. Whatever happened to the debate about the NSA and the fourth amendment? There may be no “big brother,” no malevolent machines running the matrix. There may be no Agent Smith or Skynet, but there’s no Winston Smith, no Julia, no Neo, no Trinity, let alone a Cathy or a Heathcliff, either.

What happens at the end? Well, we really don’t care. Theodore Twombly is a slave who never shows any sign that he wants to be anything more than a slave. Her is at least an hour too long. It’s a clever setup, but it has nowhere to go. After awhile, it feels like sitting on a Google bus. I kept hoping some dirty hippies would break one of the windows with a rock. I stayed with Her to the end just to see if Spike Jonze figures out a way to blow it all up, or, at the very least, to give us a satisfying resolution, but he doesn’t. The narrative isn’t resolved so much as it peters out. Jonze can’t quite figure out how to end it so he bores us to death, trying to put us in a state of mind where we’re too afraid of not “getting it” to speak up. Would I recommend Her? Sure. Go see what all the fuss is about. Would I watch it again? Oh hell no.

American Hustle (2013)

People believe what they want to believe

Near the beginning of David O. Russell’s fictionalized treatment of the ABSCAM scandal (more on that later) a small-time con man from the Bronx named Irving Rosenfeld, played by the almost unrecognizably balding and overweight Christian Bale, has brought a woman back to one of his offices. The woman, named Sydney Prosser, is stuck at a dead end job as an administrative assistant at Cosmopolitan Magazine. He’s madly in love with her, not only because she’s played by Amy Adams, who, although born in 1974, seems to embody a vision of 1970s cool, but because he feels that she’s the one person in his life with whom he can be honest. He’s ready to tell her the truth, that he’s a con man who runs what might best be described as an analog version of the Nigerian e-mail scam. What’s more, he wants her to join him, to become his partner in crime.

“How do you get them their loans?” she says.

“These guys are lousy risks,” he replies. “I can’t get them a loan, but I get my fee, five thousand.”

Sydney understands almost what he’s asking her to do almost immediately. It’s not the Bush years, where easy credit can be had from legitimate banks, but the late 1970s, in the aftermath of the oil shocks, in the middle of a recession, where, because of stagflation, the dollar is getting less and less valuable. While clearly interested, she has a moment of hesitation.

“Everybody at the bottom crosses paths eventually in a pool of desperation and you’re waiting for them,” she says, before walking out the door.

But it’s only a moment of hesitation. Soon Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, who has re-christened herself “Lady Edith Greensly” and has started speaking in a phony British accent, are working as a team. In addition to bilking people out of the last of their savings with the promises loans never delivered, they sell stolen, and, more importantly, forged art. “Who’s the master?” Rosenfeld asks, showing off a copy of a fake Rembrandt, “the painter or the forger? People believe what they want to believe,” he adds, and we believe it.

I never even bothered to ask whether or not Adams’s fake British accent was credible because she so perfectly embodied the ideal of aspirational WASP sexiness that every NYC male, heterosexual white ethnic male falls prey to at one time or another. It worked for me. It works for Rosenfeld, and, more importantly, it works for Richie DiMaso, a strange, ethically compromised undercover FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper who lives with his butch Italian American mother, and who maintains an elaborate white boy afro by putting his hair up into hair curlers every night.

By the way I’ve described them so far, you might not think that Irving and Sydney are particularly likable. At best, you may think, they’re a complex pair of anti heroes like Walter and Skylar White, sympathetic only because they’re honestly corrupt in a dishonestly corrupt society. They are indeed that, but there’s more. By the end of American Hustle, we genuinely like Sydney and Irving. We even root for them to get away with it all, and live happily ever after.


To explain exactly what ABSCAM was is far beyond the scope of this review. So I suggest you go to Wikipedia and look it up. Even after you do, you’ll still be left scratching your head, but suffice to say, it was a sting operation by the FBI against a United States Senator, Harrison Williams, a Mayor of Camden, Angelo Errichetti, and several other members of Congress, an attempt to catch them accepting bribes offered by a phony Arab Sheik. Remember, ABSCAM took place right after the oil embargo. Looking back, neither Williams nor Errichetti, or any of the other members of Congress the FBI attempted to bribe seem like particularly bad guys, and, in fact, the sting operation bordered on entrapment, so much so that there are even conspiracy theories about how the FBI was trying to exact payback against Congress for the Church Committee Hearings.

David O. Russell’s take on ABSCAM is much less conspiratorial. For him, ABSCAM wasn’t so much payback for the Church Committee as a sign that the only difference between the FBI and the New York City underworld, between Irving Rosenfeld and Richie DiMaso is that one lives by his wits and another draws a government salary. Richie DiMaso is no Eliot Ness. Rather, he’s an ambitious hustler who wants to make a name for himself by, ideally, bagging a mobster played by Robert DeNiro, or, if that fails, a few members of Congress and a Mayor of Camden.

After arresting Sydney and Irving, locking Sydney up for three days in solitary confinement, and coercing them into becoming FBI informants, DiMaso realizes that he feels more for Sydney than disgust at a petty criminal and scam artist. Just like Irving Rosenfeld, he falls madly in love with her, but unlike Rosenfeld, and this is the important difference, he has the power of the state on his side. He can make her requite his affections because he can also lock her up in a cage if she doesn’t. There’s nothing heavy handed about the way Russell introduces it. Indeed, it’s so subtle, we barely notice it happened. While DiMaso isn’t exactly Prince Charming, he’s no comic book villain twirling his mustache while he ties the damsel in distress to the railroad tracks. Sydney’s no damsel in distress and DiMaso, for all his faults, unlike Rosenfeld, at least has all his hair, and at least goes to the gym once in awhile. But the sex DiMaso wants, and never gets, would in fact, be coerced sex, and that, in the end, is what makes Sydney and Irving, for all their faults, the heroes we root for, and DiMaso, for all the sympathy we may feel for his hopeless lust for Sydney, the villain.

The rest of it unfolds from there. Irving Rosenfeld, heartless scam artist, begins to realize he may have a soul after all. The FBI’s mark, a liberal New Jersey politician named Carmine Polito, played by Jeremy Renner as a bit of a fop with a puffy hairstyle (this film is all about hair and cleavage), may not be the second coming of Lincoln. He may be involved in some low level corruption, but only because “that’s the way things are done” in his world. What’s more, he genuinely cares about the people he governs. He likes black people. He hates racism. He considers his constituents not only his constituents but his extended family. He may be willing to bend a few rules to build Casinos in Atlantic City — gambling in New Jersey has just been legalized — but he’s doing it to get jobs for the people of his state, not to line his own pockets. So Rosenfeld decides to turn the tables on the FBI, and, when he does, the movie has so effectively conned us all we never see it coming.

Final note: Jennifer Lawrence, the current Hollywood mega star, plays Irving Rosenfeld’s wife Rosyln. She’s far too beautiful, far too Anglo Saxon, and at least ten years too young for the role. Debbi Mazur or Joan Cusack in her early 30s would have been perfect. But, whatever her faults, Lawrence earns her pay, throwing herself into the role of a 1970s New York City guidette with such abandon, we almost begin to believe her Jersey accent is authentic. Her looks also contrasts with Adams’s. Where Adams is slim, elegant, cool, Lawrence is loud, fleshy, an out of control loose canon. At times, so much energy does Lawrence put into the role of blond Snooki, you can almost forget Adams is 5’4” and Lawrence is 5’11”. Adams just seems taller. What’s more, Russell shows us all the flaws in Amy Adam’s skin. She’s sexy because she’s real. Lawrence, by contrast, comes off like a perfect, almost too perfect wax doll, a 1970s Playboy Playmate a few years later, neglected, feeling left alone, and determined to push herself into the action by any means necessary (even if it means getting her husband kidnapped by mobsters).

Final verdict on American Hustle: Maybe not a great movie or even a very good one, but a thoroughly entertaining, and genuinely anti-authoritarian one, worth seeing for Christian Bale’s toupee, if nothing else.