Review – Here, Kitty, Kitty (“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain”)

Who’s Louis Wain? Back in the early 1900’s, this odd, schizophrenic, and brilliant artist was known for his strange paintings & drawings of large-eyed cats, which he adored. Sorta like the big-eyed children paintings of Margaret Keane back in the 60’s. 

They say a person suffers for their art, and there’s no better example than Louis Wain, played with perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch. Crossed between The Imitation Game and A Beautiful Mind, Wain is hampered by a jumbled brain, racing thoughts, terrifying visions, occasional outbursts of rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness ramblings, and the incredible ability to paint & draw with remarkable accuracy using both hands at the same time! His inability to keep a job is a sore spot at home where he’s expected to care for his ailing mother and six sisters, the eldest of whom, control-freak Caroline (Andrea Riseborough), is constantly berating him about.

But all that changes once Louis meets Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), the new governess for the children. Instantly smitten with her, they eventually fall in love and get married, much to the ire of Caroline. Pffft! Marrying a servant girl?! Outrageous! After all, this is Victorian England! Anyway, thanks to Louis’s employment at a local magazine, they have a beautiful home in the country and adopt a lost tuxedo kitten they name Peter. But their newfound love and kitty is short-lived as Emily is diagnosed with breast cancer, so Louis begins a passionate drive to start drawing cats. . . hundreds of them with big eyes and in all sorts of strange and comical ways. His boss (Toby Jones) loves it and soon his cat paintings & drawings go viral, I mean, are a major hit.

After Emily goes bye-bye, Louis’s life turns dark again, slipping into squalor with his many cats and near broke (he forgot to copyright his work). His life spirals out of control as he tries to maintain some sense of sanity while he keeps drawing & painting his famous cat pictures. He goes to New York and wows a newspaper editor (Taika Waititi in a small cameo), but all the while his hallucinations are catching up with him. Will he go completely insane like one of his sisters did and have to be committed to a madhouse? Like all great artists, his life was full of tragedy and suffering, and in this case, his perpetual search for “electricity in all things”.

The script by first-time screenwriter Simon Stephenson (British TV show 11th Hour) and actor/writer/director Will Sharpe (Black Pond) is a bit of a hodge-podge of ideas and events, coupled with Sharpe’s unusual camera work and strange direction. This is Sharpe’s only second motion picture, as he is mostly an actor in British TV shows. One moment you’re watching a proper UK period picture, then BOOM! You have drunken dutch-angles, a kaleidoscope of psychedelic colors, and then some very impressive lapse-dissolves from a filmed scene into a moving oil painting! Let’s just say this guy likes to experiment when he gets the chance. Does it take you out of the movie? Oh yeah, but the acting and story bring you back.

This is NOT a happy, fun-filled tale of a man and his kitty cats, but a heart-breaking, grab-your-tissues weeper from start to finish. And taking us through his tumultuous life is Cumberbatch, giving another outstanding performance as the brilliant artist trapped inside a tortured soul. This is Oscar material right here, people, especially when Cumberbatch plays the elderly Louis, which is worth watching alone. Okay, so the slow, snail pace of the movie is enough to make you check your Facebook page, but the second and third act is where the true heart of the movie lies. Claire Foy is delightfully entertaining, as is Riseborough, who is so nasty and repulsive you want to drop her off a pier. Toby Jones gives an understated, wonderful performance and if you love cats (like I do,) be prepared to go, “Awwww” quite a bit! 

**Now showing in theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime 

Big Eyes (2014)

Based on true events, director Tim Burton gives us the amazing, yet tragic story of Peggy Doris Hawkins, aka Margaret Keane (her professional name) who stumbled into the art world with the most bizarre and unhappy set of circumstances. If you remember her paintings, postcards, litho’s, and various posters, they depicted homeless and miserable-looking waifs with huge doe-like eyes from the 60’s and 70’s, . . . or rather that was NOT her work. Let me explain. . .

It’s 1958 and Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) had just left her husband for San Francisco with her 11-year-old daughter, Jane (Delaney Raye) in tow. Margaret meets her BFF, DeAnn (Kristen Ritter) there and is set up with a place to stay and shown the sites, specifically where to sell her paintings. At a sidewalk art fair, Margaret meets a fellow artist named Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) who is a debonair, silver-tongued huckster. His paintings of Parisian streets are so-so, but he sees $$$ in her work of miserable little kids with great big eyes.

Problem is, women artists don’t sell so Walter, with his wit, charm, and charisma, uses his mad marketing skills to hawk her paintings for her. Soon they are married, the paintings are selling like crazy, and Walter’s notoriety is booming. And why shouldn’t it? After all, he’s claiming to be the artist! Even daughter Jane is convinced, as Margaret paints her works in seclusion. Margaret is at first mad when she finds out, but relinquishes to Walter’s fast-talking charms and, let’s face it, without him her paintings would go nowhere. It doesn’t help matters that fragile Margaret suffers from low self-esteem and “just wants what’s right”.

One day, Walter gets the idea of selling copies of the paintings, and boom! Lithographs, posters, postcards, and whatever fly off the shelves. After 10 years of lying and deceit, not to mention a disastrous World’s Fair exhibition fiasco, Margaret finally has had enough and takes teen Jane (Madeleine Arthur) to Hawaii to get away from it all. There she discovers God with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and reveals the truth on a radio show; she’s the real artist behind all the paintings and Walter’s a fraud! A judge orders a “paint-off” competition between Margaret and Walter for proof, and I don’t have to tellya how THAT ends for Walter!

Written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (Dolemite Is My Name, 1408), this fascinating true story of those tear-filled, big-eyed children paintings that you’ve seen everywhere, is at times troubling to watch. Adams’ performance is heartbreaking as the shy, weak, and powerless brilliant artist behind the brush. You really feel her pain and wanna yell at her and say, “That guy’s using you! WAKE UP!” Conversely, Waltz is the perfect Jekyll and Hyde, with his loathsome, creepy, puppet-master that orchestrates her life using just his words. Ritter pops up for show and Arthur gets my award for the Worst Overacting Ever.

Burton, whose legendary expertise behind the camera is so well suited for the macabre and unusual, doesn’t quite have a handle on this slice-of-real-life movie. It jumps too much from moment to moment without any emotional center, but that’s the danger of bringing true-life stories to the silver screen. Where do you draw the line between real-life and reel-life and deliver more a documentary and less a compassionate look at what happened? FYI: look for the REAL Margaret Keane sitting on a San Francisco park bench in one of the scenes.

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