Tag: michael keaton

American Assassin

American Assassin (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Action-thriller “American Assassin” is for the modern American audience: it moves swiftly, action sequences are violent and at times beautifully choreographed, and the screenplay commands a level of intrigue when it comes to the shadowy world of spies and espionage. But what makes it stand out among its contemporaries is a lack of handholding when it comes to the execution of the plot. We simply watch the pieces move across the board as the race to stop a nuclear bomb from being detonated unfolds.

The casting for the lead role is inspired and surprising. Dylan O’Brien does not have the physicality of a typical action star nor does he have a face that screams “Movie Star.” Even though O’Brien looks fit, there are many instances in which his character, Mitch Rapp, whose fiancée was murdered in a terrorist attack, appears as though he would be unable to handle his own against much taller, wider, seemingly stronger enemies. And so there is almost always tension before and during hand-to-hand combat.

The contrast proves refreshing and interesting. It highlights the fact that the character is driven by so much anger and an unquenchable thirst for vengeance that threat of bruises and broken bones would not stop him from accomplishing a mission. The character is fascinating because he likens that of a rabid dog but one that must be controlled by his superiors or risk years of surveillance and undercover work among terrorist groups.

One portion of the film that could have been explored further is the training under a former U.S. Navy SEAL and Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Keaton, as expected, is able to hit different, sometimes unexpected, notes within a stock character who trains promising young talents. These training sessions not only provide curious details a potential agent might undergo before being deemed ready for the field but they also underline our protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses. We wonder about his weaknesses, specifically, and how it could be exploited later on—more importantly, at what cost.

I admired that an atmosphere is created in that action sequences are not all that important—and yet when it does present these adrenaline-fueled scenes, it excels. The screenplay creates a consistently high level of urgency and so we care about what would happen not only to the characters but whose hands the rogue nuclear weapon might end up. Because director Michael Cuesta has a habit of playing it small, when he changes his approach, viewers are rendered off-balanced in the best way possible.

“American Assassin,” based on the novel by Vince Flynn, has potential to become a profitable film series because a few elements are present that made the “Bourne” pictures highly watchable. The aggressive CIA operative has more layers to him than anger, as O’Brien’s solid performance suggests—especially during scenes between Rapp and Hurley. Here’s to hoping that if there is a next installment, the material expands the picture’s universe, makes its style more specific, and retains the ability to surprise.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

The decision not to tell yet another origins story benefits Jon Watts’ “Spider-Man: Homecoming” immensely because it takes away significant portions of what we expect from a typical arc involving Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider and having to discover his powers. Instead, the plot revolves around a tyro superhero so willing to be a part of The Avengers that he forgets he is still a kid just making his way through high school. Thus, an intriguing portrait of Spider-Man is created, one that is grounded in reality yet without sacrificing the required highly energetic and entertaining action pieces.

Two performers are cast perfectly in their respective roles. The first is Michael Keaton, playing a man named Adrian Toomes, owner of a salvage company who chooses to create weapons out of alien technology. Because Toomes is in fact the antagonist to our friendly neighborhood superhero, it is easy and convenient to label him as a villain. I believe he is more than that. I think Toomes represents the Average Joe, a businessman who is willing to do what it takes to provide for his family. So, to me, he is not a villain. And that is what makes the character fascinating. Keaton plays Toomes smart and with such humanity that when one looks into those eyes, one realizes he can be anybody’s uncle simply leading a business operation.

The second is Tom Holland, portraying a fifteen-year-old boy from Queens, New York who just so happens to be Spider-Man. I enjoyed and admired Holland’s decision to play the character as Peter Parker first and Spider-Man second—even though the plot revolves around an obsession to prove to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that he should be a part of the Avengers. Casting a performer who excels most in dramatic roles is the correct decision because pulling off both comedy and drama, sometimes simultaneously, can be very tricky. Notice how he sells the more serious scenes during the latter half, particularly one that unfolds in a tension-filled car on the way to the Homecoming dance. Holland fits the role like a glove. It will be difficult to imagine someone else in this role for years to come.

It offers memorable action scenes, whether it be atop great metropolitan heights in broad daylight or a night chase around the suburban New York neighborhood. These sequences not only command energy but also range. In action pictures, it is so important for each confrontation to look and feel different from one another. It prevents us from feeling bored. Superior actions films tend to have a commonality: the audience feeling the need to catch up to it rather than it struggling to catch up to our expectations. Clearly, this film falls in the former group with occasional surprises to spare.

Its weakness comes in the form of writing when it comes to Peter’s peers, with the exception of Ned (Jacob Batalon), Peter’s best friend and partner in crime. The romantic angle between Peter and Liz (Laura Harrier) is not as effective as it should have been since there is rarely opportunity for us to get to know Peter’s crush. In fact, I found Liz to be quite nondescript. Although it is obvious that Michelle (Zendaya) really likes Peter, even though she is pretty much invisible to him, aside from a few sarcastic one-liners, the screenplay fails to create at least a marginally well-rounded character, especially when it hints that Michelle will have a bigger role in the sequel.

Regardless, there is plenty to be enjoyed in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It is paced well, the central characters are worth exploring, the action sequences are impressive with the ability to surprise, and it knows how to have fun with (and make fun of) our protagonist with or without the Spidey suit. Imagine if it had taken more time and effort to iron out details regarding how different teenagers can be complex, difficult, and fascinating. I’d wager this installment could have been among the best in the series.

Mr. Mom

Mr. Mom (1983)
★★ / ★★★★

Furloughed from his job as a car engineer, Jack (Michael Keaton) must now stay home with his three young children (Fred Koehler, Taliesin Jaffe, Courtney and Brittany White) while his wife, Caroline (Teri Garr), works for an ad agency. Completely unfamiliar with housework and his kids’ routine, Jack struggles while his wife flourishes in her new job.

Written by John Hughes and directed by Stan Dragoti, “Mr. Mom” is a time capsule, a look in an ancient time where men bring home the bacon and women stayed at home to raise the children. While the picture is amusing from time to time, there is little dramatic core. As a result, when the more sensitive moments come around, it is difficult to completely buy into the pain and frustrations of its characters.

The writing is safe and by-the-numbers. Of course we must see Jack being out of his comfort zone as a stay-at-home-dad and of course we must see him become very good in his new role. There are one or two very funny sequences—like the scene involving a vacuum, a stove, and a washing machine—but the writing seems stuck on showing behavior rather than a subtle shift of mindset. For instance, I wanted to see more scenes of the father connecting with his kids, having a genuine conversation with them, rather than yet another slapstick involving paint, cooking, and the house ending up a mess.

Keaton does a lot with how little he is given. Even trite scenes like his character talking to a mirror as he weighs the pros and cons of possibly being involved in an affair have a sense of whimsy to it because the actor finds a way to make the situation fun even though not once do we believe something like that can happen in real life. It is in the way he plays with the delivery and the inflections he employs with certain lines, compounded with a body language that is often unassuming. Thus, when the character tries to play extremes—like trying to come off very masculine toward his wife’s boss (Martin Mull)—the humor works effectively.

Scenes involving Joan (Ann Jillian), a neighbor who hopes to seduce Jack, are borderline dead. The seduction is not only forced, it is also inappropriate in a movie like this. Because of its generally playful tone, one cannot be blamed for thinking that it is all right for children to see the picture. Joan wanting to bed Jack is uncomfortable and out of place. I expected more from Hughes—he is the writer, after all—especially since the film is supposed to be for the entire family.

“Mr. Mom” is a product of the eighties but it manages to retain a level of amusement, especially because of Keaton’s ability to make fresh choices. If the script had focused more on complex emotions rather than superficial emotions and behavior, it might have had more staying power. More importantly, it would have been a better movie.


Spotlight (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A long-term investigative group consisting of four journalists, known as the Spotlight Team (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James), in The Boston Globe are assigned by the newspaper’s new editor, Marty Barton (Liev Schreiber), to focus their efforts on finding out more about a Catholic priest who has molested children in six different parishes since the 1970s, about eighty kids in total, but no one—not the law, not the media, not the Church—did anything about it. Although the investigation starts off with one priest, discoveries are made suggesting that perhaps more people within the Boston Archdiocese knew about the sexual abuse.

Based on actual events, “Spotlight,” written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, is a powerful piece of work that does not rely on sensationalism to enrage its audience. Instead, it focuses on how journalists do their job as they attempt to expose an institution that tolerates and protects pedophiles. The drama is in how their crucial story evolves, the dead ends the investigators encounter, the people they meet and clash against along the way, and what the story means to them not as journalists but as people who, in some way or another, has or has had connection with the Roman Catholic Church.

I am most intrigued with films that show how people do their jobs. Here, the camera has a habit of simply sitting back and observing how its characters work. Parallel scenes are often run together and we are given the chance to take notice of similarities and differences between how one journalist versus another approaches a task. For instance, does the interviewer prefer to write notes? If so, does he place his notepad on the desk? On his lap? How is her posture like when she is asking a victim difficult and probing questions concerning a traumatic event? How are the questions asked: straight to the point or are extra details toyed with first in order to lessen the blow?

There is a consistent sense of urgency in the story being tackled even though we already know how it will turn out. This is accomplished through the performances. For example, when characters are speaking on the phone, even when their backs are turned away from the camera, they look almost as if they want to reach into the phone itself and grab the information right away so they can have more time to work on the other parts of their assignment. We get a sense that every piece and every minute that passes matter.

Outside of their jobs, there are two or three scenes which depict the journalists taking the story personally. The conversation between Rezendes (Ruffalo) and Pfeiffer (McAdams) about why they stopped going to church commands power. We realize then that taking their work personally makes a lot of sense because they have invested too much time and effort to expose the injustice. More importantly, they hope that by exposing such a disgusting, immoral system, people would pay more attention and demand or take action.

“Spotlight,” directed by Tom McCarthy, makes a profession that seems non-exciting (at least to me) and makes it relevant, digestible, and even suspenseful at times. It relishes details rather than avoiding them, and I stared at the screen in complete fascination.

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Although technically proficient because it is able to create an illusion that the film is shot via one long take, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman” does not command an absorbing story. It reminded me of a typical Wes Anderson work: all style, no substance; all glamour, no soul. For that, I claim that this film will not stand the test of time.

Actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) decides to write, direct, and star in a Broadway play in order to be taken more seriously—both as an actor and as a person. His most recognizable role was playing a superhero back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and has been on a downward spiral of being forgotten since—at least in his mind. As the play gets closer to opening night, problems arise, starting with the lead actor needing to be replaced because of an “accident” involving a stage light falling on his head during rehearsal.

I always felt like I was watching actors performing rather than getting to know their characters as people first and then as thespians. I get it: It is supposed to be a self-aware comedy that lampoons the business. Thus, a certain level of hyperbole is expected. Still, there is a way to write the screenplay in such a way that we are drawn in, a part of the joke, instead of being kept at an arm’s length. Its charm, on the level of technique from behind and performance in front of the camera, proves evanescent. Around the thirty-minute mark, I found myself bored stiff. Ninety more minutes to go.

Perhaps the problem lies in having so many co-writers (the director, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bó) having worked on the material. Because it wants so badly to introduce multiple subplots, many scenes come off extremely forced. Sam (Emma Stone) is having daddy issues and may or may not be back to doing drugs, Lesley (Naomi Watts) does not feel fulfilled even though she has reached her dream of being a part of a Broadway play, and Mike (Edward Norton) touches just about everybody’s nerves because he is too much into method acting that to describe him as “obnoxious” is putting it lightly.

The problem is that even though we learn information about the characters, it does not mean that depth comes naturally. This limitation is magnified by the fact that these characters are juggled like clockwork and I could tell three or four scenes away when the camera will return to them. One of the most frustrating things about sitting through a movie is having an exact idea what will happen and when. If our imagination is ahead of what is in front of us, that is a sign that maybe what we are seeing is a waste of time.

I did, however, find Keaton’s portrayal as a washed-up actor to be somewhat interesting. While the schizophrenic/“hearing voices” sort of mumbo jumbo is irritating, observe Keaton closely as he manipulates his face into portraying subtle emotions like fear and panic—that the play will not reach liftoff despite the amount of time, money, and effort he and his crew has put into it. Conversely, Keaton has a way of communicating exhaustion in fresh and exciting ways. Notice how he walks when he is by himself and compare that walk when he is around people. It is like putting on a mask around his entire body. Because Riggan wants the play to work so badly, he tries to communicate that everything is fine even though he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It is a complete performance which helps to elevate the film.

“Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” caters to the in-crowd of theatre and fails to get the rest of the population who may not be as knowledgeable about the business, to care. To me, sitting through this film is like attending a therapy session where privileged people, who are not all that interesting to begin with, whine a lot for no good reason. There is a scene in which a character claims that there are real people out there with real struggles and real stories. I wanted to know about those people instead.


RoboCop (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

With four degree burns all over his body and a spine that is severed from the waist down, the possibility of Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) surviving the ordeal is, according to the specialists, highly unlikely. It is most fortunate that the CEO of OmniCorp, Sellars (Michael Keaton), is scouting for a man to enroll in a program led by Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman). The hypothesis: Putting a man inside a machine will give the company a chance to ease the minds of a mostly robophobic American public and eventually annul a bill that bans crime-fighting robots domestically.

One of the key problems with “RoboCop,” written by Joshua Zetumer, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, is a lack of dramatic focus. What kind of story does it wish to tell? A man who one day wakes up and realizes that he is part-machine? The complications that arise when business and science form a collaboration? The role of the media in politics and vice-versa? A family ripped apart by greed and corruption? Although these questions can be very interesting to explore, such are only worth sitting through with a high level of writing. This film excels in showcasing expected action scenes but suffers severely when it attempts to shed some insight.

When bullets are involved, my attention was transfixed on the screen and my ears relished every sound when somebody pulls the trigger. The pop of the firearms are alive and coupled with camera movements with a sense of urgency, it is exciting to a point. The robotic suit of the protagonist is sleek and easy on the eyes despite never convincing us fully that with such a bulky exterior—not to mention the mass of the thing—aerial acrobatics is possible. Yes, there are a few moments when it feels cartoonish.

I enjoyed that the villain is not really bad, per se. Sellars is a businessman and wants to make a lot of money. What kind of CEO of a billion-dollar company is not driven by capital? His justifications to reach his goal, one can argue, are the elements that make him villainous. Keaton plays his character like a real person. And in an action picture with shades of science fiction, it is critical that we get a taste of something that is grounded. Oldman playing the scientist, on the other hand, makes a mistake by embodying too likable a character. Doesn’t he want to make money, too? Funding is important.

What does not work entirely is Alex/RoboCop’s relationship with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son. Pick any of their scenes and it feels tacked on and forced—as if the only way for us to root for the good guy would be to reminded again and again that he has a family to leave behind. Cornish’s dramatic scenes are awkward. I could feel her trying to push the tears out. I felt her thinking about the lines rather than just letting go and communicate the anguish of a woman who is being denied to visit her husband. It is not entirely the performer’s fault. The women characters in the film are not given depth.

“RoboCop,” directed by José Padilha, is good-looking but empty. It is neither cerebral nor brawny enough—which makes it somewhere in between. And that is boring. When I was a kid, I remember my mom watching the original “RoboCop” on HBO before going to bed. A handful of its images made an impression on me. I may not remember the details but the fact that I could remember something about it two decades later proves that there is something extreme about it, an element that is dangerous, not safe.

The filmmakers should have taken inspiration from the original and strived to push the envelope beyond what is expected, to prove to the naysayers when it was announced that a remake was in works that they were wrong to have doubted. Wouldn’t that have been icing on the cake?

Batman Returns

Batman Returns (1992)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A rich couple had a baby boy but due to the child’s birth anomaly, they decided to throw him in a canal that led to the sewers. Thirty-three years later, Penguin (Danny DeVito), with the help of a businessman named Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), decided to ascend from the depths of Gotham City, find his parents, and assimilate. If Shreck refused, Penguin would reveal to Gotham citizens the toxic byproducts produced by his factory which would surely compromise Shreck’s bid to open a power plant. Although “Batman Returns,” based on the screenplay by Daniel Waters, did not quite allow the audience into the mind of Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) beyond the surface level, it gave appropriate gravity to the motivations of its antagonists so the story was engaging. Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), Shreck’s lowly assistant and eventual Catwoman, was the most interesting character because Pfeiffer injected her with the right dosage of fragility and danger. Whenever Selina was on screen, my attention focused on her like a laser: the way she slinked her body from one point to the next while delivering one memorable line after another, so full of attitude and guile. Although Selina’s alter ego was swathed in leather sass and wielded a whip, there was a constant sadness in her eyes. The motif involving “freaks” being misunderstood provided the film’s center. When I was around five or six years old and watched the film several times over a span of a week, although the “freaks” were creepy, they didn’t scare me. I was curious about them. For instance, as monstrous as Penguin was at times, I found it difficult to consider him as a true villain. Any child who had been abandoned and left to die but somehow survived could end up not quite right in the head. The screenplay acknowledged the similarities between Penguin and Batman as well as Catwoman and Batman so I was very curious as to why it didn’t delve into their relationships as outcasts in a more meaningful way. One of the main weaknesses of the picture was it had two or three unnecessary action sequences especially toward the beginning. The pacing would have been much smoother if the screenplay took its time to build its characters’ intentions before finally releasing the pressure. I did, however, love the scene where Penguin’s henchmen, the Red Triangle Circus Gang, hijacked the Batmobile which led to Batman being unable to control his car during an escape from the Gotham police. It was fun and funky but it didn’t lose the darkness it accumulated prior to that entertaining chase. Another element that proved impressive was the relationship between Selina and Bruce. It wasn’t boring not because we knew that she was Catwoman and he was Batman but they weren’t aware of each other’s secret identities, but because Bruce was turned on by Selina’s in-your-face kinkiness. What they had wasn’t some hackneyed romance but a partnership of needs in a purely sexual nature. “Batman Returns,” directed by Tim Burton and wonderfully scored by Danny Elfman, was ominous, darkly funny, and uncompromising with its vision. I argue that the true villain was Shreck and it was smart to relegate him as an ordinary man instead of making him an obvious megalomaniac. After all, the greatest evils and evildoers tend to go undetected.