(Netflix Streaming, October 2018) The measure of great actors can often be seen at how they elevate standard material, and so we have Christian Bale single-handedly making Harsh Times a worthwhile watch. Well, OK, that may be overstating things. After all, this film is another one of writer/director David Ayer’s take on the seedier side of Los Angeles (his first as a director after a good run as a screenwriter) as it follows two young men, one of them a troubled combat veteran (Bale) as they attempt to do better with their lives. That’s easier said than done when jobs are scarce, police work isn’t for those with troubled pasts, and a tangled web of obligations holds down both men. As this wouldn’t be an Ayer film without tense gunplay and impossibly tragic choices, Harsh Times does not head in a happy direction—the third act becomes a dramatic ordeal to watch. Interestingly enough, the film has gained a bit of sustained attention in the decade-or-so since its direct-to-DVD release: the star power of Ayer and Bale (and Eva Longoria, here with a thankless role as a girlfriend trying to bring her husband back to respectability) have ensured that the film continues to get attention today. The uneasy mix of graphic violence and emotionally stunted characters may not make for an easy watch, but Harsh Times holds its own as a sombre LA crime film with good performances and a strong atmosphere.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) Interestingly enough, nearly everything I know about the Armenian genocide has been because of attempts to deny it. In early 1994, for instance, the antics of “Serdar Argic” in flood-posting Usenet newsgroups with genocide-denying messages gave pre-web users a reason for a crash course in unpleasant Turkish history. Twenty-five years later, Turkish nationalists took it upon themselves to give one-star IMDB votes to The Promise, a film dramatizing the Armenian genocide. But here’s the thing: I base part of my essential viewing choices on the list of movies with the most votes … meaning that I likely would not have watched the film had it not been from the vote-stuffing attempt. Well done, genocide deniers—you denied yourselves. As it stands, The Promise is an effective dramatization of dramatic historical events, wrapped up in a generous wrapping of romance and personal drama. The film’s star power is good enough to be worth a watch by itself: Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale are known as intense actors, and while the film doesn’t quite fully exploit their acting talent, they do lend a lot of credibility to a film that seems content to run by the usual melodrama. A touch too long, a touch too predictable and a touch less satisfying than it should be, The Promise is run-of-the-mill historical drama filmmaking. It wouldn’t be particularly memorable, except as a reminder of the Armenian genocide and the attempts to silence it from history.
(On DVD, October 2017) “Christian Bale plays J.G. Ballard” is a really weird sentence to contemplate for anyone who knows a bit about twenty-first century blockbuster movies and new-wave sixties prose Science Fiction. It’s even half-true. Empire of the Sun certainly features Christian Bale in one of his first major roles, and adapts J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel to the big screen. However, Ballard’s autobiographical experience mostly applies to the first part of the film, which depicts the lavish lifestyle of the British upper-class in early-WW2 Shanghai and their internment in civilian camps after the Japanese invasion. There are differences, though, as explained in a fascinating 2006 essay on the novel and the film by Ballard himself: Ballard spent the war in a camp with his parents, modified his character’s arc to differentiate it from himself and generally provided more closure than reality afforded. Still, as reported, Christian Bale did introduce himself to the author by saying “Hello, Mr Ballard. I’m you.” (The essay multiplies the strangeness—the film was partially filmed near Ballard’s home, leading some of his neighbours to feature in the film as extras.) The film itself is a study in the kind of old-school epic war drama that seems to have disappeared from the current movie landscape in favour of CGI-fuelled fantasy spectacles. There are a number of scenes with thousands of extras, a story that spans years, gorgeously fantastic sights captured in-camera without special effects (such as a stadium filled with objects taken by the Japanese) and an overall sweep to the story that feels prodigious. Bale is fine as the sometimes-unwitting protagonist of the story, but John Malkovich is delightfully amoral as a survivor trying his best to make it through the war, while various other notables such as Miranda Richardson, Joe Pantoliano and Ben Stiller (!) show up in smaller parts. The depiction of Shanghai is gripping, as is the way normalcy is disrupted in small and big ways after the Japanese invasion. The airplane motif is well done, and the film does earn its relatively happy conclusion. Dark humour and vertiginous sights (such as a faraway glimpse at nuclear explosions) enliven an already satisfying story. The result is still surprisingly engaging thirty years later—but then again, it’s a Steven Spielberg production.
(Video on Demand, April 2016) Hollywood is known for dumbing down everything, but the positive spin on dumbing-down is “vulgarize”, and The Big Short does it exceptionally well. Explaining the financial crisis of 2007–2008 through the perspective of traders who bet on the collapse of the US housing bubble before everyone else, this is a film that sets out to explain an exceptionally complicated topic to broad audiences, using every means at its disposal. Other than a clever script that creates dramatic tension out of real events, this includes frequent asides to the camera, sardonic narration and nakedly didactic celebrity appearances. (“And now to explain mortgage bonds, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.”) The result is nothing short of astonishing: The Big Short lays out its explanations clearly, entertainingly and doesn’t make many mistakes along the way. Even readers of Michael Lewis’s original book will be impressed at the amount of detail that writer/director Adam McKay manages to include in slightly more than two hours. For McKay, The Big Short is an impressive step forward that builds upon his work on The Other Guys’ end credits sequence to deliver a film that is outrageous and infuriating in the best sense of the words, while remaining a far funnier film than either Anchorman movies. (The helps that the film has a sly sense of stealth humour, from playing “Crazy” in the background of an insane explanation, showing how regulators jump in bed with banks, or how an assessor wears blindness-inducing glasses—removing them just in time to deliver some harsh truths.) This being said, the laughs in The Big Short aren’t from jokes as much as they’re from sheer bewilderment, that so-called smart people would be so astonishingly stupid. Or short-sighted, or greedy: As befits a complex catastrophe, the motivations in The Big Short are as complicated as synthetic CDOs. Even the protagonists aren’t too sure what to feel when they win by betting against logic, tradition and the respectability of the American economy. Steve Carrell (as the outraged moral centre of the film) and Christian Bale both impress in roles that deviate a bit from their screen persona (to the extent that Bale has a screen persona, that is), with able supporting performances by Ryan Gosling and a barely recognizable Brad Pitt. It’s not a stretch to claim The Big Short as a public service—the limpid way it manages to explain the madness of an entire system is populist rage fit to justify mass entertainment as the modern jester. While not every trick it attempts works (McKay’s direction seems too deliberately off at times), it’s a fine, even impressive piece of cinema, as much for its ambitions than for how it achieves them. It makes a more than fitting companion to films such as Margin Call and Inside Job.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) There’s an acknowledged dearth of mainstream realistic adult dramas in today’s cinematic landscape, but I’ll gladly watch a stream of escapist superhero fantasies if the alternative is feeling like slitting my wrists. Unusually dull and sombre films such as Out of the Furnace aren’t the antidote when they’re paralyzed by so much unbearable self-importance. Taking place in the rusted ruins of American industry, it features two down-on-their-luck brothers trying to fit in a world that doesn’t want them once they’ve gone to prison or to war. Out of the Furnace is never a cheerful film, but it gets steadily worse as the protagonists are pushed in increasingly desperate situations. Director Scott Cooper does know how to handle such a film—alas, the material he’s serving isn’t meant for casual consumption. Christian Bale is fine yet not particularly remarkable as the lead, while Casey Affleck is more memorable, but also less likable, as his brother. There are many familiar actors in smaller roles. The dour tone of Out of the Furnace carries through the ending, which almost comes as a relief given how badly we want to get away from this place.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2016) I would have gotten a lot more out of Velvet Goldmine had I had more than a cursory knowledge of the glam-rock scene. As it is, I’m left to wonder how deep the parallels run to David Bowie and his contemporaries, and how to appreciate writer/director Todd Haynes’s somewhat free-form approach to the film. There’s a lot of stuff packed in Velvet Goldmine, almost too much so: The story takes place in an alternate reality where the United States have quickly turned fascistic, for instance, but very little is actually made of this framing device. The highlight is placed on a period ten years earlier, in tracing the rise and fall of a rock icon and his troubled relationships. I’m not sure how much of it is a film-a-clef, but it plays reasonably well to ignorant audiences such as myself. The music isn’t bad (and I say this as someone who doesn’t particularly like progressive rock), the cinematography is often spectacular, and actors such as Evan McGregor and Toni Collette get to show their wild sides as uninhibited rock stars. (Christian Bale, not so much—but it’s a different kind of role.) Almost twenty years later, Velvet Goldmine has aged pretty well as a twice-removed period piece. Watching it days after Bowie’s death is enough to give the film a sentimental value than I wasn’t expecting when I placed it on my Netflix queue.
(On TV, September 2015) As far as difficult adventures go, Rescue Dawn tackles the plight of a Vietnam-era American pilot brought down in unfriendly country. Quickly captured, he plot evasion and escapes through the jungle before being rescued. Director Werner Herzog adapts his own documentary film inspired by a true story about the real-life odyssey of Dieter Dengler, and while the result never rises above the ordinary, Rescue Dawn is a well-made adventure film that gives a credible look into the plight of American POWs during the Vietnam War. Christian Bale headlines as Dengler, once again showing off a feat of physical transformation during the course of the film. Plot-wise, the film has an accumulation of man-versus-man-versus-nature events keeping things interesting from one moment to the next. It may be a bit too long, with some dodgy aerial special effects and a few plot shortcuts along the way. Still, Rescue Dawn remains interesting as a survival story, remarkable for Bale’s performance and impressive for the jungle scenery that wraps up the film.
(Video on Demand, March 2015) Counter-intuitively enough, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings chooses to downplay its biblical material in favor of plausible political intrigues and natural phenomenon. So the Ten Plagues of Egypt become an overlapping set of environmental disasters, retreating waters from a tsunami makes the Red Sea disappear, and Moses is stuck in an impossible political situations following power-plays by other powerful characters. It’s an interesting choice (especially when compared against Noah, which seems to maximize the fantasy aspect of its own old-testament inspiration) that tells us much about the way religious subjects can be handled when they’re the focus of a multi-million-dollars effort involving hundreds of people. Does it work, though? At times, it certainly does: Scott’s success in period or future pieces has always been in creating a convincing atmosphere, and Exodus certainly has a few wondrous moments during which we entirely believe this recreation of historical Egypt, with its shiny pyramids and sprawling cities. It’s also hard to go wrong with the intensity of Christian Bale (as Moses) and Joel Edgerton (as Rameses II), alongside such notables as Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. Still, that’s not a whole lot to satisfy, especially given the subject matter. While the Ten Plagues sequence is a highlight, the Red Sea sequence seems a bit lacking as a spectacle, and the choppy narrative strives for complexity while producing either confusion or boredom. For Scott, it does feel like Kingdom of Heaven all over again, with a lengthy running time hinting at missed opportunities, either at a shorter or longer duration. A lot of efforts and energies were spent making this film, and it seems like such a shame that it doesn’t rise much above the level of a mildly interesting one.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) As a plot-driven moviegoer, I’m always a bit frustrated when contemplating movies such as American Hustle: While I had a pretty good time watching the film, much of this enjoyment was based on getting to know the characters, appreciating the gorgeous re-creation of the late 1970s, humming at the soundtrack and enjoying the costumes. Plot? Well, there’s some kind of bare-bones caper/con action going on, but it’s not particularly heartfelt, nor all that interesting once everything has gone down. This a director/actor’s kind of film, and so the real joy of American Hustle is in seeing David O. Russell having so much fun with Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence that all five of them get Oscar nominations. Much of the acclaim is justified: Russell may not be as interested in telling a story than in letting his actors run with the scenery and the costumes, but American Hustle is filled with feel-good energy, tense dramatic confrontations, steady forward rhythm and plenty of laughs. Christian Bale turns in another performance unlike anything seen from him before, while Bradley Cooper carefully undermines his own all-American good-guy image, Amy Adams brings subtlety to a complicated character and Jennifer Lawrence almost makes us forget that she’s roughly ten years too young to play that particular character. Frankly, American Hustle is so successful in what it gets right that it practically minimizes what it doesn’t get so right. It feels scattered, loose, improvisational and filled with badly-tied loose ends. But at the same time, it’s a fun movie and an invigorating viewing experience. Who cares if the plotting isn’t tight enough: At a time where nearly all major cinema releases are excuses for bigger and shakier special effect sequences, it’s almost a relief when a character-based film comes along and ends up being a massive success.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) Is it possible to follow-up a modern classic such as The Dark Knight without making a few missteps in the process? Probably not, but writer/director Christopher Nolan makes fewer mistakes than most in trying to provide a definitive conclusion to the cycle he launched with Batman Begins: In The Dark Knight Rises, he’s willing to toy with the archetypes of superhero movies (Batman doesn’t make an appearance until 50 minutes in the film), blending it with real-world elements in order to deliver a thrilling, hefty, sometimes-philosophical take on the place of extraordinary people in society. Christian Bale once again stars as Batman/Bruce Wayne, once again flanked by Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, and this time ably supported by Tom Hardy as supervillain Bane, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt as a capable partner and less-ably by Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. (Let us be blunt: Hathaway has old-school grace and beauty, but it’s not the slinky-sex-kitten quality that the best Catwomen should have.) Still, the script is the most interesting element of the picture: it blends real-world markers with superhero crutches (so that we get CIA extraction planes, professional football games and references to social inequality alongside cities cut off from the rest of the world by hoodlums, people dressing up in amusing costumes and a quasi-mythical “League of Assassin”), scratches a little bit to reveal character motivations, re-uses elements of the previous two films to good effect and tells a surprisingly satisfying story despite numerous small flaws. For anyone else, The Dark Knight Rises would be an impressive achievement: as big and bold as an action blockbuster should be, while handled with a surprising amount of depth, darkness and complexity. Still, compared strictly to Nolan’s previous two films, it’s a bit of a letdown: the themes aren’t as strong as in The Dark Knight and the ingeniousness of Inception is considerably toned down. But never mind the comparative let-down: The Dark Knight Rises is an enormously successful film, another example that entertainment doesn’t have to be entirely brainless. It’s a spectacle with some depth, a daring way to handle an immensely popular protagonist and a subversive way to follow-up its previous two installments. It easily ranks as one of the good movies of 2012, and it should please even the most demanding fans.
(In theaters, December 2010) I have no specific interest in boxing movies or family dramas, but even I can recognize that The Fighter is about as good as those kinds of films can ever be. Based on the true story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, the film focuses on a period during which family problems and lack of focus are threatening to derail his career. Part of the appeal is the film’s unusual message of reasonably distancing oneself from one’s family in order to succeed –a far cry from the usual family-at-all-costs message in American films. While the film does end up with a happy reunion… it’s suitably nuanced by sacrifices and bad personality traits from everyone involved. Although Mark Wahlberg is credible as a boxer, he doesn’t have much to do dramatically here but portray a solid hero; Christian Bale gets a far more interesting role as a washed-up addict waking up to his faults, whereas Amy Adams throws herself in a role that could have easily gone straight to cliché. David O. Russell’s direction is often documentary-style; more-so at first, and then later on during the boxing sequences. Those boxing scenes are solid enough to actually catch the nuances of who’s winning and why (which turns out to be essential once the protagonist starts winning fight unexpectedly). Given the film’s close ties with the real people it portrays, don’t expect to see Ward’s true story (read the news clippings instead). Still, even if The Fighter doesn’t have any surprises and plays with clichés, its portrayal of lower-class characters is honest, its payoffs are earned and its blend of sports and family drama is satisfying.
(In theatres, July 2009): Depression-era Chicago, gangster Dillinger, early days of the FBI, Marion Cotillard as a moll, Michael Mann directing: What can possibly go wrong? Plenty of things, actually, starting with Mann’s increasingly ugly fixation for digital filmmaking: Public Enemies often looks cheap and out of control: a night-time shootout looks as if it’s been filmed on video by amateurs, the handheld camera is constantly used without reason, while several other scenes are insufficiently lit. Meanwhile, though, there isn’t much going on in the tangential and confused script: scenes come and go, but there’s little attachment to the characters, what they’re doing or where they’re going. Among other things, the story touches lightly upon Dillinger’s extraordinary popularity at the time, and messes up the chronology for several members of the Dillinger gang. Johnny Depp and Christian Bale star, but neither of them show the skills they’re best known for. The result is an overlong mess, and an uninvolving one… especially given the elements the film could draw upon. This is the third substantially-digital film by Mann, and after Collateral and Miami Vice, it’s clear that he’s getting less and less successful with each of them. What’s going on?