Click audio player to hear Tim’s review of “Arrival” on “The KQ Morning Show” with Tom Barnard.
The space alien genre gets a seemingly new twist in “Arrival,” a thinking person’s sci-fi thriller that ultimately is more about questions of humanity than it is the otherworldly beings that initiate first contact. But while “Arrival” feels fresh in comparison to several alien thrillers recent years – it’s about aliens that invade, but don’t attack – it ultimately comes off like a smattering of similar films.
In fact, it doesn’t take long to realize the touchstones of “Arrival” seem to borrow from the plot points of “District 9” (which features hovering ships), “Gravity” (about a protagonist dealing with loss), “Contact” (about a scientist decoding alien messages), “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (about aliens warnings to Earthlings) and “Interstellar” (about the transcendence of space and time).
That’s not to say that “Arrival” isn’t fascinating and thought-provoking. It just can’t seem to get over the hump to approach the greatness of any of its equally-smart predecessors.
Amy Adams is brilliant as Dr. Louise Banks, an expert linguistics professor, who, along with and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), is recruited by a military colonel (Forrest Whittaker) to attempt to communicate with the beings in an alien spaceship that lands in Montana. A saucer-shaped ship that appears to be levitating sideways, it’s one of 12 massive vessels hovering over different parts of the world that gives no clear indication of its intentions.
Louise’s task is to decode symbols that the aliens are seemingly communicating with, trying to figure out why they are here and what they want; and Ian wants to figure out where they came from and how they got here. The problem is the messages of the beings – dubbed “heptapods” (they resemble octopuses, but are one leg short) – are so complex that Louise and Ian may not have enough time to stave off a festering global war. It turns out that countries like China and Russia are perceiving the heptapods as a threat, and an attack on the ships is imminent.
“Arrival” not surprisingly arrives just in time for awards season, and thanks to the brooding tone and atmosphere set by gifted director Denis Villenueve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario”), the film manages to be cerebral without being pretentious. From the very first frame, Villenueve masterfully constructs a plot of misdirection, which ultimately results in one of the most satisfying payoffs on the big screen this year.
The problem is, up until the big reveal in the film’s third act, “Arrival” plods along and may feel like a bait and switch to moviegoers expecting much more based on the film’s tantalizing trailers. In the end, “Arrival” comes off as a studio-backed sci-fi art-house movie that doesn’t deliver any of the sorts of scenes moviegoers associate with the genre. On one hand, the less is more approach is completely welcome for those pining for originality; but on the other, the film just feels too uneventful running up to the unexpected, hard-hitting climax. In the end, “Arrival” is satisfying, but ultimately underwhelming.
For “Man of Steel” star Henry Cavill, the key to the success of director Zack Snyder’s exciting new interpretation of the iconic character of Superman isn’t so much about the film’s spectacular special effects as it is creating a character grounded in reality. After all, any film has a hard time flying (so to speak) if the audience can’t relate to the main character, no matter how much it dazzles its audience visually.
Of course, the big difference between Superman and his fans is that humans don’t have superpowers (so far as we know), But one thing everyone shares, including the Man of Steel, is the feeling of confusion and isolation as they struggle to find their purpose in this world.
“The emotional aspect is one of the most important traits of the movie,” Cavill told me in a recent int
erview. “We’ve grounded it very much in reality and although Superman himself is not subject to the frailties of the human flesh, he’s very much subject to the frailties of the human mind.”
Opening Friday in 2D and 3D theaters and on IMAX screens nationwide, “Man of Steel” tracks the origins of Superman, born Kal-El to Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) on the distant planet of Krypton. With the planet crumbling beneath their feet and threat of anarchy by the menacing General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his band of militants, Kal-El is shipped off to Earth by his parents with the hopes that the child will someday grow to be an agent of good in his adoptive home.
Urged by his Earth parents, John and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), to hide his otherworldly gifts as a child, Clark Kent, as Kal-El is now known, is forced at age 33 to embrace his destiny as a superhero when Zod invades the planet looking for him. Clark, as it turns out, is the key to the general’s plan to bring Krypton back to life, and the fate of the planet — including the life of Clark’s new friend, journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) — hangs in the balance because it.
Told in a gritty, real-world narrative that relies heavily on flashbacks instead of the linear sort of storytelling we’re used to seeing with the character, ‘”Man of Steel” is no doubt the most daring and unique film about Superman yet.
And while “Man of Steel” stays true to the Superman canon, Cavill is thrilled that Snyder and writers Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer were willing to take risks in bringing the new story to the fore.
“One of the wonderful things about this film is that it breaks new ground and tells a new story in a way that isn’t safe, because that makes it even more interesting,” Cavill observed. “It’s a genuine pleasure to be working with these guys.”
Another person Cavill worked with, albeit indirectly, was Hans Zimmer, Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy composer, who took the daunting responsibility of creating the score for “Man of Steel.”
Zimmer, in a recent interview, told me the score came together like clockwork because of several elements, including the strengths of the actors’ portrayals. Scoring to Cavill came naturally because of the actor’s complete embodiment of his character.
“I don’t think we’ve could have done this movie without Henry,” Zimmer confessed. “He to me is so perfect. I can’t possibly imagine anybody else playing Superman. It made it easier scoring to him. All of the characters made me feel that way. The movie is so incredibly well-cast.”
Suiting up One of the new directions the filmmakers took in “Man of Steel” was with a new design of Superman’s suit, which viewers will discover was influenced by Kal-El’s Krypton origins. But no matter the differences between the old Superman suits and the new one, it still very much is Superman — and Cavill said was thrilled beyond belief to step onto the set in his costume for the very first time.
“There was something very special, that very first time — it was just an honor to be there, representing Superman,” Cavill, 30, enthused. “Everyone was there and 100 percent into the job, and it was an honor to be chosen to do this very important duty.”
Without question, the most important part of Cavill’s duty was the research he put into the role. Ultimately, the British actor decided, it was in his best interest to avoid all film versions of the Superman tale — including the classic portrayal by Christopher Reeve — and only rely on the comic books for his research.
“I didn’t want to watch the other movies or any live action stuff because I felt it would influence my interpretation of the character,” Cavill said. “I wanted my interpretation to be purely from the source material, which are the comic books.”
Cavill did eventually see one Superman movie — his own — and admitted that watching “Man of Steel” was in some ways like an out-of-body experience. Gone was Cavill the man who was on the set every day filming the superhero tale, and in the seat was Cavill the average, unassuming moviegoer.
“I was 100 percent swept up watching the movie,” Cavill said. “Yes, I was privy to the movie magic and yes, I had that personal experience because I was there, but I was getting emotional throughout the movie. I wanted to stand up and cheer, support different characters and ask all the different questions the movie makes you ask. It was a great experience. I was speechless after seeing it. I’ve watched it two more times since and felt the same after each time, and I can’t wait to watch it again.”
Until then, Cavill will get to relive his memories of being the Man of Steel through several different means, including the ever-important action figures that come along with superhero film releases. The figures made him giddy when he received them, and he can’t wait to share them with his family.
“It’s absolutely fantastic. I’m sitting in my hotel room, looking at this 31-inch tall action figure of the character, and it’s very, very surreal looking at it,” Cavill beamed. “Having action figures is going to make getting Christmas and birthday presents for my nephews very easy from now on.”
With nominations from the Golden Globes, Independent Spirit Awards and Critics Choice Movie Awards already to its credit, there’s no question famed director Tim Burton’s latest film, “Big Eyes,” is in serious contention for more honors as the film world draws closer to the Academy Awards. But truth be told, the twice-Oscar nominated Burton has never been interested in winning awards himself, and would rather forgo a trip to any podium to make sure the people who most deserve the accolades finally get their due.
Burton said in the case of “Big Eyes,” any awards attention means a bigger victory for Margaret Keane, 87, the subject of one of the strangest cases of art fraud the world has ever seen. Passionately brought to the big-screen by Burton and his “Ed Wood” screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the film tells the story of the artist (Amy Adams), who in the 1950s and ’60s stood silent as her scheming husband, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), took credit for her world-renown paintings of big-eyed children — until she found the courage to expose the fraud.
“Scott and Larry showed Margaret the movie while I was still finishing it, and she got quite emotional,” Burton recalled for me in a recent interview. “It was interesting to hear things like, ‘Oh, m
y God, that was like Walter.’ Because we weren’t there and the history is sort of sketchy to us, it was gratifying to hear that we sort of captured some emotional things that really touched her. It was really nice to hear those things because she really is a special person.”
Burton largely credits Adams with capturing the spirit of Margaret Keane, who appears in a background cameo early in the film, as well as in a photo with the actor during the end credits.
“From Amy’s point of view, after meeting her, she really wanted to do her justice,” Burton said. “It’s hard, because it’s a strange character. She’s very quiet, very shy, but not a victim. She has a really strong core, and she found her voice in a way that she only could do it. It was important to me, the writers and Amy to get things right.”
Anyone familiar with Burton’s artwork well knows that the characters in his sketches and paintings generally have big, rounded eyes with small pupils — characteristics that have been most often realized on the big-screen in the director’s stop-motion animated classics “Vincent,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Corpse Bride” and “Frankenweenie.”
And while Margaret Keane’s big-eyed subjects have large pupils, Burton said he was no doubt influenced early in his life by the artist’s distinct style. Born and raised in Burbank, California, Burton said he vividly recalled the “Children of the Damned” meets Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery”-type of spooky images by the San Francisco-based artist thought to be Walter Keane hanging everywhere.
“What probably influenced me was the mixture of emotions that you get by looking at the images,” Burton observed. “There’s sort of an eerie quality and sadness, as well as a darkness and humor and color. All those things together obviously resonated with people. There were a whole other artists that tried copying it, but couldn’t quite capture that unique strangeness of the images.”
While “Big Eyes” gives Burton the opportunity to tell Margaret Keane’s story through the medium everybody knows the filmmaker for, the material actually holds a deeper meaning for him because of his background as a sketch artist and painter.
“Big Eyes” executive producer Derek Frey — who has been collaborator of Burton since “Mars Attacks!” in 1996 — says the revelation of the depth of his friend’s work in the 2009 book “The Art of Tim Burton” (Steeles Publishing) and subsequent exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City that same year without question put Burton on the path to direct “Big Eyes.”
“‘Big Eyes’ is probably a film that he wouldn’t have made five or six years ago,” Frey told me in a separate interview. “When I started working with him, I knew of this hoard of art work he had and how prolific he was. People knew that he sketched and that he came from animation, but what they don’t realize is that he continues to draw something every single day. It wasn’t until the MoMA show started that people started to understand that this was more than something he did when he was young. It’s something that still drives him as an artist and a filmmaker, and that is something that really drew him to the ‘Big Eyes’ story.”
Apart from connecting with Margaret Keane as an artist, Frey believes the similar reactions people had to Burton’s films and Keane’s paintings, respectfully (or disrespectfully, in the case of critics), were major factors in his commitment to directing the film.
“Of course, he knew of Margaret Keane before getting the script and knew of her story in the 1950s and ’60s, but what drew him to the project initially was the fact that the work was embraced and consumed by the general public, but then panned by the critics. Tim could relate to that,” said Frey, referring to the uneven critiques of the director’s work over the years. “The reviews of the paintings weren’t positive, but yet the exhibits continued to break records with people coming all over the world to see them. They inspired people to go to museums or pick up a paint brush. As Tim the filmmaker, being able to relate to how critics viewed his work was definitely something very personal to him in relation to ‘Big Eyes’ and Margaret Keane as an artist.”
The windows to Margaret’s soul
Burton said that throughout his career, he’s been fascinated by certain actors’ eyes and their ability to help tell a story, from frequent collaborators Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, to Winona Ryder and Eva Green — the “Dark Shadows” star who has the lead role for his next film, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.”
Perhaps it was a bit of a happy accident then that Adams — whom Burton cast to paint, in a cinematic sense, the big-eyed children — had a mesmerizing set of eyes herself to help reflect Keane’s view of the odd circumstances she was trapped in.
“What was so amazing to me about Amy was, by just staring, you feel so much emotion in her. At least I did,” Burton said. “You feel this sort of conflict going on inside of her without her doing anything. You feel it just by looking at her. I find those kind of actors amazing.”
Burton believes the reason Adams’ portrayal is resonating with preview audiences and yes, even with those pesky critics, is because her portrayal isn’t just merely about recreating brushstrokes. Instead, Burton captures through Adams’ eyes and the window to Margaret Keane’s soul the inner-turmoil of a woman in a time where females’ roles in society were greatly unappreciated and far under-valued.
What made the situation unique, of course, was that Margaret Keane was also an artist in a time where women, apart from Georgia O’Keefe, were not accepted in the art world, and she was effectively being forced by Walter Keane to follow his lead without questioning his motives and churn out the big-eyed children for immense profit. The relationship — an odd dynamic of a man trying to suppress his wife’s self-esteem while she was expected keep her creative impulses intact — did not exactly reflect the typical portrait of a nuclear family 50 years ago, Burton said.
“They sort of represented the times to me in a way, where the idea of the American Dream with a husband, wife and kids was changing,” said Burton. “With the Keanes, you had this dysfunctional relationship where they were creating these weird, mutant children with these paintings. So in some way, their story represents, symbolically, something to me about the time and how it was changing from one era to another from the ’50s into the ’60s. They captured the spirit of the changing times, but in a weird way.”
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers