Tag Archives: Michael Keaton

284. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

“Being the Batman fan that I am, I pretended to like the film. I passionately defended it to my ‘non-Batman’ friends who found it ‘weird’ or ‘dumb.’ But eventually, I gave in to the fact that this film plain sucked. This macabre, morose, dark abomination was a Batman film in name only. Frankly, I felt screwed by Warner Brothers and Mr. Burton.”–Bill “Jett” Ramey, “Batman on Film”

“It’s human nature to fear the unusual.”–The Penguin, Batman Returns

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Danny DeVito,

PLOT: The film sets Batman against three new villains: Oswald Cobblepot, a deformed outcast who lives in the sewers and adopts the name “the Penguin”; “Catwoman,” former secretary Selina Kyle turned feminist avenger after a near-death experience; and Max Shreck, a wealthy retailer who wants to build a power plant opposed by Gotham City’s mayor. With differing agendas and shifting loyalties, the three form a plan to run Cobblepot for mayor and to frame Batman for the city’s crime problem, while Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne and Selina pursue a romance, not realizing that they are sworn enemies. After the superhero foils the initial plot, the Penguin pulls out a more elaborate, apocalyptic plan.

Still from Batman Returns (1992)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tim Burton, who had scored a blockbuster with the original Batman (1989),  was reluctant to produce a sequel. Warner Brothers convinced him to helm the film by giving him almost complete creative control. Heathers‘ Daniel Waters was brought in to shade Sam Hamm’s too-sunny original script. It was a move the studio came to regret (the film was profitable, but not as big a hit as its predecessor, and parental complaints that it was too violent/sexy/weird for kids spooked the suits). Neither Burton nor star Michael Keaton returned for the third movie in Warners’ Batman franchise, which went in a lighter, more family-friendly direction under Joel Schumacher.
  • Angry parents boycotted McDonalds for (unwisely) including Batman Returns action figures in Happy Meals, complaining that the movie was too violent for kids.
  • Oscar-nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. Also nominated (unjustly, in our opinion) for a “Worst Supporting Actor” Razzie for Danny DeVito.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I’m going to go with the army of penguins equipped with missiles striped like candy canes (remember, this is a Christmas movie).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kitty corpse revival; poodle with a hand grenade; missile penguin army

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Let loose with a budget of $80 million and almost complete creative control in 1992, Tim Burton smuggled weirdness into the cineplex in the guise of a superhero sequel. The resulting picture has as many excesses as you can possibly sneak into a blockbuster: suggestive S&M duels between sexually repressed loners clad in fetish gear, a carnival-themed gang who unleash their surreal clown fury on Gotham at Christmas, and an army of penguins led by a deformed sociopath.


Original trailer for Batman Returns

COMMENTS: Earning over 260 million simoleons at the box office—although some ticket buyers probably asked for a refund—Batman Continue reading 284. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

SPOTLIGHT (2015)

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) is now playing in select theaters. It opened in half a dozen cities nationwide, was critically well-received, and did brisk business. It was only after that promising start start the studio seemed to have any faith in it, which is unfortunate. It is not only a well-made film, but also an important one. Thankfully, it does not take the attitude of being Important, and commendably refrains from on-the-sleeve melodramatics, which is a rarity in films with potentially explosive themes.

The image of Bing Crosby’s congenial Irish Father O’ Malley has gone the way of the dinosaur. That is apt, because even the velvet-voiced actor behind the collar was reportedly an abusive father (one son wrote a “daddy dearest” tell all; two additional offspring committed suicide). The Church itself was the cause of its own bad press, and most of the world became privy to its dirty laundry when the Boston Globe published a series of articles in 2002 exposing pedophilia in the ranks of Catholic clergy.

Actually, cracks were beginning to show elsewhere before that infamous exposé. A few years prior, the Indianapolis Star ousted sixteen pedophile priests in the ranks of the Lafayette diocese. Still, that does not compare to the Boston Globe revelation of (approximately) 90 priests who were serial pedophile abusers in the diocese of Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. This is the topic of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. 

When new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives at the Boston Globe, he inquires about a follow-up to a recent column about a lone pedophile priest. In a meeting with Walter Robinson (), Baron speculates that this may not be an isolated incident and deserves further investigation. That’s how things happen; like a silent wind blowing with no indication where it came from or where it is going.

Still from Spotlight (2015)Robinson assembles a crack team, which includes Mike Rezendes (), Sacha Pfeiffer () and Matty Carroll (Brian D’ Arcy James). With barely a journalistic scratch, the number jumps from one pedophile priest to six, then to possibly thirteen. Perhaps the most unnerving scene in the film follows. A disembodied voice, belonging to an insider, calls the “Spotlight” team.

“Do you think thirteen pedophile priests is an accurate number?” the caller is asked. “Oh no,” he answers. “Too high?” “Too low. It’s probably closer to 90.” His reply is so nonchalant, it makes the hairs on the nape of the neck stand on end and gives credence to an attorney’s previous observation: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one.”

There is no dimly lit John Huston figure or a Deep Throat informant hiding in the shadows of a subterranean parking garage. McCarthy Continue reading SPOTLIGHT (2015)

CAPSULE: PORCO ROSSO (1992)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Susan Egan (English dub)

PLOT: A bounty-hunting pig-man (a victim of an unexplained curse) flies his seaplane through the Adriatic between World Wars, battling air pirates and a hotshot American rival.

Still from Porco Rosso (1992)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has its strange, and its sublime, moments, I would rate this as flying pig oddity as relatively minor Miyazaki—which, of course, means it’s still well worth seeking out.

COMMENTS: Porco Rosso is set in a precise, but unreal, historical place and time: the Italian Adriatic, in between the great wars. But its pig-man hero isn’t the only fantastic element here. In this alternate history, the Adriatic sea is its own far-flung multi-island kingdom with its own political intrigues, a realm where seaplane pilots are legendary demigods, like the mythologized gunfighters of Westerns. The local hot spot is a floating hotel only accessible by watercraft, with a valet to parks seaplanes. There are Italian fascists and references to WWI, but this universe evolves out of old movies rather than history: it’s a mixture of Casablanca and romantic aviation movies like Wings or Hell’s Angels, a world where you expect to see the Red Baron and Mata Hari sharing a drink in the corner of a flyboy saloon.

Although with its Humphrey Bogart-esque antihero Porco Rosso often seems more adult-oriented than Miyazaki’s usual fare, at other times the drawing style and caricatures are more indebted to Saturday morning cartoons than his later work. Observe the big-mouthed, howling anime schoolkids, and the cartoonish, kid-like antics of the pirate buffoons, who are drawn as goggles and pillars of teeth surrounded by bristles. Despite the flying duels and machine guns, the danger level here is minimal: no one dies onscreen, and the abducted schoolgirls treat their capture by pirates as a fantastic adventure, hanging out in the gun turret with their captors and screaming “whee!” as they dive off the stranded plane into a giant life preserver. The mixed tones are odd, but Miyazaki makes them harmonize well.

Clearly, the weirdest element of Porco Rosso is its hero’s porcine curse, which is never fully explained and is scarcely even wondered at by the movie’s denizens. Perhaps his piggish visage only reflects the way Porco sees himself. Perhaps the curse is the result of a mystical vision he saw after he was the only survivor of a massive dogfight, where he saw dozens of fighter pilots soaring upwards to heaven. Whatever the cause of his condition, symbolically, his bestiality sets Porco apart from ordinary citizens: “laws don’t mean anything to a pig,” he explains. Still, his snout and porky complexion can’t keep this charismatic pig from having two love interests, and there is an ambiguous suggestion at the ending that he may regain his humanity. I doubt Miyazaki was aware of the English-language idiom “when pigs fly,” meaning something so exceedingly rare as to be impossible, when he conceived Porco Rosso. Still, it’s probably safe to say you’ll enjoy this movie when pigs fly.

In 2015, Disney upgraded Porco Rosso to Blu-ray.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“That a pretty great adventure movie can rest comfortably alongside a strange tale of identity and morality that is itself set against the rise of Fascism is proof enough that we’re in the hands of a master storyteller…”–Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy (DVD)

CAPSULE: BIRDMAN (2014)

Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alejandro González Iñárritu

FEATURING: , Emma Stone, Edward Norton, , , Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan

PLOT: Aging actor Riggan Thomas, who became a superstar anchoring a blockbuster superhero franchise in the 1990s, writes, directs and stars in a Broadway show in an attempt to be taken seriously as an artist; unfortunately, he’s simultaneously battling the voices in his head, as his old alter-ego presses him to sign up to do “Birdman 4.”

Still from Birdman (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Birdman is a movie that adopts a weird methodology to tell its story, but it’s only weird by the diminished standard of movies that will be nominated for multiple Academy Awards.

COMMENTS: Birdman starts with a strange conceit. It’s about a former superstar actor, star of a superhero tentpole franchise, trying to be taken seriously as an artist by producing, writing, starring and directing a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. To throw a wrench into things, the actor is also insane, believing that he has telekinetic powers, and he hallucinates that his Birdman alter-ego is taunting him for his artistic pretensions. So, given that this is your story, why not sweeten the weirdness by scoring the film to solo jazz percussion and shooting the entire movie in what appears to be one unbroken take?

Birdman is not like any other film you’re likely to see this year, or anytime soon. It is a movie that (on the surface) insists that plays are more authentic artistic expressions than movies. It’s an extremely theatrical movie, one that’s bursting with smart dialogue, numerous subplots, and memorable monologues. It’s no wonder that a top-notch cast was attracted to the project. Most notable is Edward Norton, in a flamboyant role as an arrogant actor with so much talent he’s compelled to sabotage himself just to keep things interesting. Keeping pace is Emma Stone as Riggan’s wayward daughter, just out of rehab and more adept at spotting others’ b.s. than her own. Even Zach Galifianakis impresses in a rare straight-man turn as Riggan’s lawyer. Still, Keaton, willing to let the camera linger on his thinning hair and explore his deepening crow’s feet, carries an impressive load of the film’s ambition on his shoulders. Keaton, Norton and Stone will all be remembered come awards season.

The cinematography (by Emmanuel Lubezki, coming off an Oscar for his work on Gravity) plays as big a role as any of the stars. Unlike long-take record-holder Russian Ark, Birdman is not really a one-take movie, since it has at least a couple of invisible edits (as did Rope). The extended tracking shots, which wander around the labyrinthine theater ducking into various dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces, are nonetheless highly impressive. The long-take gimmick is impeccably realized, but it isn’t really formally necessary. This would essentially be the same movie if it were conventionally edited. You could argue that the one-take technique gives the camera a “gliding” sensibility (like a bird), or that it mimics the dangerous unpredictability of live theater, but I think the real reason the filmmakers did it is simply because it was difficult to do. Like art itself, its very unnecessariness is its justification.

It’s hard to believe that many people will find Riggan Thomas’ struggle—whether to turn his back on his colossal financial success and create something meaningful, or just give the idiots the pabulum they crave—very relatable. The implied insults to fans of superhero movies are a bit much, as is the strawman of a snobby theater critic who plans to shut down the show—sight-unseen—simply because it has the stink of Hollywood about it. (Pre-emptive shots at critics are almost always cringeworthy, and Birdman really should be above such shenanigans).  Birdman is Hollywood insiders navel-gazing, hang-wringing, and soul-searching about how to be taken seriously as artists, sure. But it’s also the best Hollywood has to offer: it’s unpredictable, bold, and unapologetic, manned by a completely committed cast and crew working at their collective peaks. By doing so, they ensure that they are taken seriously as artists, even though their movie has exploding helicopters and a guy gliding through digital clouds in a molded plastic bird costume.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a near-seamless concoction of onscreen surrealism that would make the likes of Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, and Spike Jonze green with envy.”–Gary Dowell, Dark Horizons (contemporaneous)

25TH ANNIVERSARY: TIM BURTON’S BATMAN (1989)

A quarter century after its debut, ‘s Batman (1989) is still among the brightest of the comic book genre films; an odd thing, given how dark it is. However, Burton’s Batman has a glamorous darkness. Burton was young, energetic, and at the top of his game in 1989. His interpretation of the caped crusader remains groundbreaking and is more astute than ‘s The Dark Knight (2008). Nolan went the mile to distance the avenger from his comic book origins. Burton embraces the source material.

Upon Batman‘s monstrously hyped release, many critics lamented the dominant personality of ‘s Joker as compared to the title character. In hindsight, Nicholson’s killer clown seems less innovative than Heath Ledger’s radically different interpretation. Today, it is easier to recognize ‘s Bruce Wayne as the eye of Tim Burton’s hurricane: he inhabits the quintessential capitalist fantasy. In a case of shrewd casting, Keaton’s Batman has no extraterrestrial powers, nor does he even look like he has spent his life in the gym. Rather, Wayne is fabulously wealthy and it is all those “wonderful toys,” bought by all that wonderful money, that makes him an all-American noir Superman, free to wreck vengeance upon a fascistic Gotham’s lower criminal element. Like Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper before him, Keaton went through the script, pruning his dialogue down to the bare essentials, making this an internalized performance.

Burton’s casting inspired controversy among unimaginative comic book fanatics, who only saw Keaton in his previous comic roles. The actor and director proved them wrong. ‘s Wayne, in the Nolan films, resorts to a dull playboy act. Keaton’s Wayne can’t help revealing that he has as many screws loose as his alter ego. Burton says in less than ten minutes what Nolan takes an entire film to tell: Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) and Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) stumble upon a hidden Wayne manor room of armor and weaponry, explaining the inspiration for the costumed alter ego.

From Boss Grissom’s mafioso penthouse to the Axis chemical plant and a quack surgeon’s back alley office, Anton Furst’s set design is among his best (in an impressive career that unfortunately ended with the artist’s suicide in 1991). Also noteworthy are Roger Pratt’s cinematography, Bob Ringwood’s costuming and Danny Elfman’s resonant, Wagnerian score, all done under the guidance of Burton, elevating pulp into anarchic poetry. Like the Burton-helmed sequel, Batman consistently surprises enough to nearly render its flaws secondary. 

Still from Batman (1989)Nicholson’s Jack Napier shines most when he wrecks havoc upon pop culture, sabotaging consumer products and brooding over popular media’s not so subliminal sales tactics. The chief flaw of the film lies in a lack of a substantial female character, which Batman Returns (1992) remedied in spades. Vale is merely there as a decoration for Bruce Wayne’s arm. A second noticeable flaw is in the intrusive music by Prince (otherwise, a very good artist during his youthful prime). However, the related MTV videos were considerably better, and a wonderful example of how big a pop phenomenon Batman was.

Homages to ‘s Metropolis (1927), ‘s Vertigo (1958), and The Wizard of Oz (1939) are prominent, but, for the most part, Burton keeps cinematic references down to a minimum, something he would not do in Batman Returns (1992). Naturally, Tim Burton’s Batman is not as much guilty pleasure fun as “Scooby Do Meets Batman” or “Superfriends,” and it certainly isn’t the delicious morsel that Adam West gave in his legendary camp take on the character. Yet, Burton manages to make a tale of two sociopaths, spawned from the gutter, into highly stylized entertainment.

Batman was birthed by the then new graphic novel trend, most notable Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight.” The script was written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, based on Bob Kane’s original characters. The violence in Batman is comic bookish and stately: the Joker fries a mafioso with a hidden hand buzzer, and the murder of boss Grissom is devoid of blood. At times, the film seems to be enveloped in a Tex Avery ‘toon: after mating with his girlfriend, Wayne hangs upside like a bat, the Batplane soars upward to the moon (creating a bat signal), a joker card is flipped over with Carl Stalling-like sound effects foreshadowing Napier’s fate, the Joker’s hand melodramatically emerges from acid, the silhouetted Caped Crusader moves like wet ink atop a roof, and the Joker shoots down the Batplane with a gun that looks like it might have been ordered from Acme supplies. The henchmen are really not too far removed from Cesar Romero’s sycophants. Batman is crepuscular, and, thankfully, it’s never realistic. 

Apart from Heath Ledger, Nolan’s believed-to-be superior Dark Knight is devoid of humorous touch and is so utilitarian, with one plot too many, that it is doubtful the film would have worked without the late actor’s turn as a pathological clown.

Unfortunately, neither Burton nor Keaton went beyond their two entries in the series. Perhaps a man dressed up like a bat might revitalize both artists.           

BATMAN RETURNS (1992): A SUPERHERO BURLESQUE

In 1992 some damn silly, so-called Christian organization threw a bullying hissy fit at McDonalds for its Happy Meal deal tie-in with Tim Burton‘s Batman Returns. McDonalds, true to form, prematurely withdrew its merchandising. Rumor has it that McDonalds issued a stern warning to Warner Brothers not to tap Burton for the next Batman film. For whatever reason, Warner Brothers caved into the golden arch and, consequently, put its franchise into a decade long grave with the unwise hiring of director Joel Schumacher.

Only the fundamentalist mindset can associate Big Macs with a certain brand of morality. Looking at Batman Returns (1992), one wonders what the Christian organization was bitching about. The Bible is all throughout the film and, actually the good book itself has far more sex and violence than Batman, Tim Burton, Warner Brothers and McDonalds combined.

Regardless, Batman Returns remains the greatest cinematic comic book movie to date and one of Tim Burton’s most uniquely accomplished films. Admittedly, I am not a fan of comic book movies, even if I did read comics some when I was kid, but then most kids I knew did. I was in the minority in preferring DC to Marvel, and I guess I am sort of looking forward to the new Green Lantern movie, mainly because the Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic was a favorite when I was a wee lad in the 1960s and 1970s. That was a comic that was delightfully of its time, a bit like Star Trek in espousing an ultra-liberal message with all the subtlety of a pair of brass knuckles. Even though Green Lantern himself was a bit too righteous and bland, I liked that he was obsessed with the color green and was rendered impotent by the color yellow. There was something surreal in that, and I find the insistence of realism in comics to be a huge oxymoron. Perhaps that’s why the dark surrealism of Batman Returns did not bother me like it did mainstream audiences, comic book geeks, and militant pseudo-Christian organizations.

Still from Batman Returns (1992)Even though I will acknowledge that Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight (2008) was well crafted, it would not have worked without Ledger’s performance holding it together. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, however, pales compared to ‘s much more intense, internalized, subtle and complex Wayne. Finally, Nolan’s film feels like it has one subplot too many. Comparatively, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is a Continue reading BATMAN RETURNS (1992): A SUPERHERO BURLESQUE