Dedicated with love to Daniel Taraschke
Michael Keaton is making a comeback? I didn’t know he had ever left. I don’t really understand the concept of creative comebacks with actors and actresses. I do think there is such a thing as a public perception comeback, which is exactly what Michael Keaton is experiencing right now with Birdman. The movie will almost certainly score him an Oscar nomination, which would surprisingly be the first one of his career. That’s good for Keaton, and his performance has been singled out for a significant amount of praise, in a movie that is drawing good notices from virtually everyone who has seen it.
Call it a comeback? I guess you could. This is probably the most attention Keaton has received in nearly twenty years. It’s not as though he’s been in retirement since then. He has worked extensively in television and film, giving great performances in things likeKing of the Hill and Game 6, while inexplicably showing up in films like First Daughter andHerbie: Fully Loaded. He dropped off the radar, but has continued to do interesting work as an actor. He even directed the film The Merry Gentleman, which I recommend highly.
Over the last several years, Keaton has taken on supporting roles, TV show guest spots (he was good in 30 Rock), and low-profile gigs. That’s fine. It’s just weird to me that people are now referring to him as though he just magically became a good actor again. He didn’t. He just happened to find a project that knew how to use his talents as an actor properly.
And there are a lot of examples of that kind of thing. People claimed Mickey Rourke was on the comeback trail with The Wrestler. Anyone who saw Sin City will tell you how completely wrong the first group is. People call Al Pacino a hack, but I can guess with a pretty high level of confidence that a lot of those people haven’t seen You Don’t Know Jack. Jessica Lange didn’t suddenly become a great actress again with American Horror Story. William Shatner proved with Boston Legal that when it comes to jokes about William Shatner, no one’s better at delivering them than the supposed punchline.
Even Nicholas Cage proved that with the right project, in his case, it’s the movie Joe, good actors are always good actors. In a few years, Johnny Depp is going to do a movie that makes even his most disappointed fans claim that he’s returned with a vengeance of some kind.
I think actors can get bored, lazy. They can get stuck dealing with how the public wants to perceive them. But I also believe that the concept of a creative comeback more often than not comes down to the actor simply finding a film or even a television show that plays to their strengths. I also think there’s an argument to be made for the idea that expectations or perceptions for an actor can become so high or so specific, they suddenly become underrated.
People are surprised by Michael Keaton’s work in Birdman. I’m not.
St. Vincent (2014): B+
The story of a boozy, aged malcontent becoming the reluctant mentor to a small child is not a new one. However, Theodore Melfi’s writing/directing debut proves the old adage that when the story is told well, it doesn’t really matter how familiar it is. The story itself does get dangerously close to being too sentimental, but an exceptional cast keeps the blunt, somber undertones of the script alive and well.
As you might imagine from watching the trailer, the movie promises one of the better comedy/drama mixes you’re going to come across. Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy both help to maintain the balance. This is definitely Murray’s show, in the end, but McCarthy deserves just as much praise for elevating the thankless role of the mom who is too busy working to get drunk in the afternoon, hang out with Russian prostitutes (Naomi Watts), or go to the racetrack. McCarthy becoming a star in recent years has led to a number of dismal projects that are well beneath what she’s capable of. St. Vincent is an intriguing project for her. She has to play a part that’s considerably lower key than something like Bridesmaids, and she has to be funny in that kind of thing with Bill Murray as a co-star. The fact that she does so well with both of those tasks is one of the many pleasant surprises to be found here.
Chris O’Dowd as a priest is another, but make no mistake about the fact that Murray and Jaeden Lieberher (as the child) are petty perfect together. Their relationship has to be the main driving force behind the movie. Murray gives one of his best performances in recent memory. Lieberher is perfect foil, and manages to avoid being the kind of precocious brat you want to hit with a shovel. St. Vincent is an excellent debut feature, and it is fine work from everyone in the cast. It may well be one of the best comedies of the year.
My Darling Clementine (1946): A+
My Darling Clementine is nearly seventy years old. Yet it remains not only one of the best westerns in film history, but also perhaps the best cinematic retelling of the 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral. Some people will tell you that no one has ever equaled John Ford as the definitive filmmaker for the western genre. When you watch Peter Fonda, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan, and Cathy Downs in the film that flawlessly utilizes light and shadow, effortlessly turns the scenery into a supporting character all on its own, it’s hard to argue with those people.
The film still has enormous educational potential in this day and age, particularly in terms of how to establish and maintain atmosphere. If you don’t care about that, and you also don’t consider yourself to be someone who likes westerns and/or old films, it may still be worth your time to see My Darling Clementine. It may not make you a fan of westerns, but it will remind you that when you use age and genre as disqualifiers for a movie, you might miss out on those movies that transcend tidy descriptions.
Harper (1966): B+
Harper is a little too dated to stand at times. It’s also not the best movie Paul Newman made in the 60s by a long shot. Even so, it’s a private detective story that manages to retain most of the fun it strove to capture, in bringing one of these plots (detective looks for a missing person, and the case only gets more complicated and dangerous from there) into what was then the present.
Harper connects itself to the lineage of its type with Lauren Bacall in fine form, but this is still a Paul Newman vehicle. This is also a movie (and the same can be said for its 1975 sequel) that has become a little obscured, compared to some of the more well-known Newman performances. If you’re a fan of vintage Paul Newman, the tough, cool, sophisticated leading man of some six decades, Harper will be a good time. If you’re not a big fan of Newman’s, you may still like this as a very distinctive product of its time.
Muppets Most Wanted (2014): C-
We’re just about at that point in which we all remember why it’s best for the Muppets to take extended breaks.
For now, their comeback story hasn’t quite overstayed its welcome. Muppets Most Wanted is good, but it’s certainly not the wonderful surprise that the 2011 film proved to be. It’s a little too long, some of the songs are awful, and there are long periods of time in which nothing even close to funny happens. Then there are moments in Muppets Most Wanted so funny, so true to the spirit of these characters that were created by Jim Henson so many years ago, you’re glad they’re back in the good graces of pop culture.
The opening musical number alone is one of the best things ever put in a Muppets film. Ricky Gervais is the kind of villain you expect him to be, and there’s nothing wrong with that, when it works. It works for the most part. Many things in Muppets Most Wanted do. There are just lengthy parts of the movie that feel strained, and drag things down a bit as a result. Muppets Most Wanted is pretty good to fans and kids. Everyone else is going to get to the end, and hope that the next film (and there will be another one) will be substantially better than this.
Sylvia (2003): C-
It’s a little strange to remember that before James Bond, Daniel Craig played some pretty shitty human beings. Sylvia is a biopic that fails to capture the tumultuous relationship shared by poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, but it does get a few things right. Or at the very least, it tries to just enough to stay interesting from start to finish.
One of those things is in how the film smartly avoids making Hughes a sympathetic personality. The emphasis for Sylvia is rightly placed on Plath’s struggles with mental illness, with trying to remain a writer after having children, and her obsessive desire to understand and conquer her demons and growing fits of madness with poetry. Gwyneth Paltrow is not an actress I’m ever going to be particularly fond of. But I can’t deny that inSylvia, she tries very hard to make us appreciate what Plath went through, during a time when mental illness was even more stigmatized than it is now, and with a husband who from all accounts underestimated a great deal about her.
In the end, lousy chemistry with Craig combines with a dreary, sluggish pace, and the result is something that unfortunately does not tell the story of this remarkable writer in the way that one would hope. It’s not a complete waste of time by any means, but it’s not what it could have been.