China Is Near (1967)
Directed by Marco Bellocchio
Two working-class secretaries, Giovanna (Daniela Surina) and Carlo (Paolo Graziosi), enact a plan to climb up the social ladder with the unwitting help of inexperienced professor-turned-Socialist council candidate Vittorio (Glauco Mauri) and his sexually promiscuous sister Elena (Elda Tattoli, also co-writer). But in the world of China is Near, no one—not even Vittorio’s passionate young Maoist altar-boy brother, Camillo (Pierluigi Apra)—is spared Bellocchio’s satirical blade. Those who only know Bellocchio from the more-humanist bent of recent efforts like Vincere and Dormant Beauty may be startled by the serrated edge of the comedy in this, his follow-up to his even-more-incendiary 1965 debut Fists in the Pocket. Even in 1967, though, Bellocchio allows moments of nuance and empathy to shine through: Giovanna’s heartbreak upon realizing she’s as much of a pawn in Carlo’s machinations as everyone else; Vittorio’s desperate attempts to intellectually justify his selling out to a disappointed Camillo. Though the details of its political concerns place this squarely in the late 60s, Bellocchio’s wounding view of human beings hiding behind politics to justify appalling behavior still resonates. Kenji Fujishima (Mar 20-26 at Film Forum; showtimes daily)
Tim Burton’s Big Eyes could be lumped in with the count-em-three other biographical movies opening on Christmas Day, being that it’s Burton’s first true-ish story since Ed Wood twenty years ago. But it’s also a reunion with Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski, which (for some, at least) shifts the focus from the biography of painter Margaret Keane to the narrative of Burton’s career, which, per conventional wisdom, just hasn’t been the same since, well, take your pick: Sleepy Hollow in ’99, Mars Attacks! in ’96 (his critically disliked flop that at some point became part of his good old days) or yes, Ed Wood, the masterpiece some non-fans seem to love at least in part out of hate for every outright fantasy he’s made since.
Big Eyes is not Ed Wood—not as loopy, not as moving, not as perfect a movie about the making of its beautifully questionable art—and as such may provide further fodder for condescending thinkpieces about what happened to Burton (quick answer: since his supposed prime he’s made, let’s see, a family drama with fantastical elements, a dark musical, a nearly unclassifiable horror-soap comedy, and some family films whose worst crimes are the ease with which they fit into his wheelhouse). But it accompanies Wood and Edward Scissorhands as a portrait of Burton’s native California: sunny pop-art sprawl with undercurrents of dysfunction and menace.
Directed by Tim Burton
Opens December 25
Director Tim Burton and the story of Margaret and Walter Keane, a tale of extreme weirdness hidden under the manicured surface of two middle-class American lives, were made for each other. There’s even something Burtonesque about the Keane paintings that give the film its title: portraits of children with sad, deadpan faces and eyes so huge and flat that one of the film’s characters compares them to “big stale jellybeans.” After all, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice or Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands as Keane kids in Goth getups. But this “based on true events” tale is a Burton film without much Burton; its costumes, settings and sometimes on-the-nose dialogue all disappointingly straightforward.