Posts Tagged ‘Michael Keaton’

Batman (1989)

Director: Tim Burton

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance

Twenty-six summers ago, I wonder if anyone could have envisioned the explosion of comic book/superhero films we see today. Every couple of months or so, either DC or (more likely) Marvel is churning out another one. Back in 1989, however, the now mile-long list of films from this genre was limited to mere inches. Of the few that were in existence, most hadn’t made an exceptionally big splash. In 1986, “Howard the Duck” crashed and burned, and its ashes were doused in urine. It was so bad that Marvel didn’t really get back into the game until more than a decade later. Up to this point, only Superman had really grabbed anyone’s attention at the movies for DC Comics. Any prior big-screen experience for Superman’s Justice League partner had been the 1966 big-screen adaptation of the Adam West “Batman” TV series. Rather than anger fans of that show, I’ll say simply that I like Batman best when he’s not being played for comedy. Finally, in 1989, director Tim Burton would draw not upon the farcical 1960’s, but rather a mix of the Bob Kane/Bill Finger days of the 1940’s and the then-recent Frank Miller Batman stories (as well as Burton’s own brand of surrealism) to give both Batman and superheroes in general a wider audience than they had ever known before.

The orphaned son of Thomas and Martha Wayne, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) has not been left without the means to carry on nor the motivation to ensure that fewer people in Gotham City should have to live with the horror he has experienced in his life. Having witnessed the murder of his parents when he was just a child, Bruce now patrols the streets of Gotham at night dressed as his alter ego, Batman. Perceived as a mythical figure by the police officers and criminals who’ve yet to cross his path, Batman’s true identity is known only by Bruce’s butler and surrogate father, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough). Even reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), who wishes to get close enough to Bruce to know his heart and close enough to Batman to get a career-making story, has not a clue that the two are one and the same.

The leading source of organized crime in Gotham City is a gang led by Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). His top lieutenant, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), had been carrying on an affair with his boss’s mistress. What Jack didn’t know was that Grissom had already discovered the indiscretion and made plans to remove him from the gang’s future business… permanently. Unfortunately for Grissom… and for Gotham… his plans lead not to Jack’s demise, but to his transformation into the Joker. The man known as Jack Napier displayed aptitude in science, chemistry and art, demonstrating a high level of intelligence, but this was countered by an erratic mental state which gave him homicidal tendencies. As the Joker, this instability becomes amplified (nerve toxins are now his main weapon of choice). His insanity leads him into a love triangle between himself, Vicky Vale, and Bruce Wayne. When Bruce learns of Jack’s role in the death of his parents, as Batman, his vendetta against the Joker becomes about more than just saving innocent lives.

Seeing this movie theatrically with my father at age 7, “Batman” acted as my introduction to all of the film’s major players: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman. The only familiarity I had going in was with singer Prince, who provided most of the film’s other music not attributed to Elfman. It is this incredible collection of talent and not the film’s simplified story which makes it special in my eyes (that and, of course, the nostalgia factor).

“Batman” would simply not have been what it was with lesser actors. As Vicky Vale (a character which has yet to reappear in any subsequent Batman film), Kim Basinger shows us some of the talent which would eventually win her a Best Supporting Actress award (in 1997, for “L.A. Confidential”). Admittedly, a more recent incarnation of the Joker has caused me to look back and see Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the character for what it is. Rather than slip into the persona of the Joker, Nicholson is more or less playing himself AS the Joker. Doesn’t mean he isn’t fantastic as always. As much of a legend and as much of a scene-stealer as Nicholson is, the real coup in the casting department was in giving the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne to Michael Keaton. At the time, it seemed an unlikely hire, as Keaton was known best for the title role in Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” That character would lead one to think of Keaton then as being a more likely candidate for the Joker. Thank goodness we were wrong because, after all of the films in the series featuring the Caped Crusader (both the good and the bad) that have followed, Keaton remains the definitive Bruce Wayne/Batman. Almost as synomymous with the character is Danny Elfman’s main theme, much in the same way that the John Williams “Superman” theme is.

In addition to being one of the first truly successful films based on a comic book, “Batman” also did its part in the creation of the blockbuster. Oh, it’s true that there were a number of movies that had come before which made a ton of money for their studio. But it wasn’t really until after the summer of 1989 that we started seeing movies making $200 million, $300 million, and now sometimes $400-$600 million on a more annual basis. You can attribute this to inflated ticket prices if you must… but the numbers speak for themselves, regardless.

If I had to rely on just the story, there are ways in which I could pick “Batman” apart if I tried hard enough. Particularly in the climax, there are some small things which bug me, such as how the Joker can know he was “a kid” when he killed the Batman’s parents since he doesn’t even know who Batman really is, or how it is that Joker’s thugs could anticipate that their boss would choose the bell tower of the church when running from Batman. It’s also somewhat strange that more of an emphasis is placed on the Joker’s origins than Batman’s, but whatever. Overall, it’s still a lot of fun, and worth sharing the experience with our children as our parents did for our generation.

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Birdman (2014)

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts

My fragile little mind finds it hard to accept that Tim Burton’s “Batman” is more than a quarter-century old. Since then, I’ve grown up, and that movie’s stars have grown old. March of Time and all that jazz. Still, even as Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy has since transcended the superhero genre, nothing I’ve seen has persuaded me that anyone other than Michael Keaton can be thought of as the definitive Bruce Wayne/Batman. It’s easily his most recognizable role, with “Beetlejuice” running second. Although he’s continued to work in the years since (he featured as a terrific Dogberry in Kenneth Brannagh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”), I hadn’t seen Keaton in anything truly meaningful in a long time… and then “Birdman” came along.

Like Keaton, the character of Riggan Thomson is a Hollywood film actor who is best known for playing a costumed superhero. But, that was years ago, and now all Riggan wants is to be relevant again, to be able to surprise people with the talent he knows he still has inside of him. To accomplish this, he has taken it upon himself to write, direct and star in a Broadway adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a short story by Raymond Carver. After a falling light fixture injures his co-star, an incident of which Riggan insists he was the cause, method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) enters as a replacement. Almost immediately, the two start to butt heads, with Mike sabotaging one preview of the play and upstaging Riggan in the next. If he’s looking for support from his daughter Samantha (Emma Stone), he doesn’t get it. She unloads on him, telling him in the grand scheme of things that he doesn’t matter, and that he’s only doing this play in some futile attempt at bolstering his own image.

The play’s final preview is as problematic as the rest. Riggan spots Mike and Samantha flirting with each other, the visual of which has him so distressed that he steps outside for a smoke close to time for him to return to the stage, not thinking about the fact that the door will lock him out of the theatre automatically after it closes, which it does, with part of his robe caught in it. Forced to circle around to the front of the building in naught but his underwear, Riggan achieves the sort of publicity for his play that he could never have planned for, his half-nude sprint having gone viral through social media. Unfortunately, he suffers a setback when a prominent critic promises to “kill” his play, citing her disdain for celebrities who pretend to be actors as her reasoning. After getting drunk and spending a night unconscious in the street, Riggan imagines himself leaping off the roof of a building and taking flight, ending up back at the theatre. In reality, he’d simply taken a taxi cab. Keeping what the critic had said in mind, Riggan has become convinced that the only way to impress anybody is by doing something shocking. To accomplish this, he replaces the prop gun for the play’s final scene (in which his character kills himself) with a real one.

Since the release of “Birdman” in 2014, much has been made of the ambiguous nature of the film’s ending. It is dependent upon whether or not you believe Riggan survives his suicide attempt. The range of interpretation is vast, with some seeing it as triumphant while others imagine the conclusion as resembling a eulogy. For a movie that was already fantastical to start with (the first time we see Riggan, he’s imagining himself levitating above his dressing room floor), it is better in this case, I think, not to have one clear answer.

With “Birdman,” director Alejandro González Iñárritu has crafted a remarkable work of art. One of the most impressive things about it is the decision to film it to look as though it has been done in one long, unbroken take. In addition to Michael Keaton, Iñárritu gets oustanding performances from each member of his cast, especially Edward Norton and Emma Stone. In particular, the scene in which Samantha trivializes her father’s ambitions is Emma Stone’s best of her young career. Also terrific are Naomi Watts as Lesley (Mike’s ex and a Broadway first-timer), Andrea Riseborough as Riggan’s girlfriend and co-star, and Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s best friend and lawyer, Jake. Like Keaton, Galifianakis is proving that he’s more than just a niche actor, stepping as far away from the “Hangover” series with his “Birdman” role as possible.

I’ve seen a lot of movies about show business, and “Birdman” beats the heck out of all of them. It has the humor of “All That Jazz” and the mind-bending psychedelia of “Black Swan,” finding a comfortable middle ground between both. It’s also a great conversation piece, one I expect to be talking about for years to come. Long have I been a fan of Keaton’s, but now I will always look on his earlier work with a renewed appreciation for the effort it took to bring life to his other characters. It’s true that I may always hear Danny Elfman music when I look at him, but “Birdman” has raised the bar to all-new heights for Michael Keaton, and I’ll be interested to see where his career will take flight in the near future.