Friday, March 11, 2011

CHRISTIAN BALE - Blowing up in a cinema near you!

Christian in American Pyscho - bloody intense mate

I didn't manage to sit through the entire 83rd Academy Awards but I did watch long enough to see both Melissa Leo and Christian Bale win awards for their appearances in The Fighter. [Quick aside: I was extremely pleased to see Melissa Leo up there. Many years ago she had a part in a brilliant TV drama called Homicide Life on the Street. It was distinguished by some of the best TV writing ever, and accordingly the show was filled with memorable characters. Even among such superb character actors as Andre Braugher, Yaphet Kotto, Clark Johnson, Jon Polito and Kyle Secor, Leo's character of Sgt Kay Howard stood out. With her crumpled face and wild red hair and man suits she had zero sex appeal and didn't rely on anything but her acting chops to carry the part. She totally inhabited the role of Kay Howard. In a world where fully realised female characters are even scarcer in cinema than on TV, Melissa blazed a wide trail. Many years later she emerged from obscurity with a starring role in a little indie movie called Frozen River. It proved to be something of a sleeper hit and her bravura performance as a working class trailer park mom forced to make some tough decisions garnered her a lot of attention. No doubt it had a lot to do with her being cast as the tough working class Mom in The Fighter. And badda bing badda boom, whaddaya know, she now has a shiny new ornament for her display cabinet. Well deserved! It was good to see her finally emerge from the shadows and get some Respect. You go girl... woman.... whatever.]

However, the real surprise of the evening was Christian Bale. Not that he won, which he no doubt deserved to do. but that this was the first time he'd won anything from the Academy! Or had even been nominated!! I was, like, WTF? Are these people in the Academy a bit slow? Do they live under a rock? Have they not seen The Prestige? Rescue Dawn? Harsh Times? American Pyscho? The Machinist??? (OK, fair cop, I havent seen that one either, but still...). Where had they been these last few years?

It's common knowledge that Bale is the dude to watch these days. The comparisons with 'Robert De Niro' are inevitable, particularly as he has a penchant for transforming himself physically in order to get deeper into the role, ie, he is a method actor in the same vein as the mighty Bobby D. So to help out the half-witted panel at the Academy, let's do a quick review of the films for which Bale should have been given something at Oscar time - even if it was just a nomination!

Harsh Times (2005)
Director: David Ayer
Writer: David Ayer 
Players: Christian Bale, Freddy Rodriguez, Eva Longoria

OK watching this movie feels like the guy in The Fighter must've felt after Mark Wahlberg knocked him out with a kidney shot. You're not sure if you want to throw up or if you'll ever be able to pee right again (explained later). It's one of those little movies that just comes out of nowhere and leaves everyone feeling a bit puzzled and uneasy. People can't categorise it, and therefore it's hard to market, you can't easily label it 'drama' or 'action' or 'horror' and let it find its market. Because it's drama and horror and action all rolled into one. It's a balls to the wall, pulls-no-punches, out-and-out indie picture with massive, hairy cojones that makes its audience uncomfortable and squeamish and a little sick to the stomach. These things don't bode well for the 'business' end of the business. In other words they dont translate into good box office results, but they do for damn sure make for interesting viewing.

Front and centre in the movie is the craziest, most loosey-goosey, off-the-wall, fall-down-funny, adrenaline-fuelled performance I've seen since the aforementioned Bobby D in Mean Streets (with a healthy dose of Gary Oldman in State of Grace thrown in for good measure). Bale plays Jim Davis, who has recently come out of the elite Army Rangers unit where he has undoubtedly seen some pretty hairy shit in Iraq. Although Davis looks like a squared-away Roger Ramjet soldier type with good prospects of advancement through the ranks of society (he's on a mission to get a job with the LAPD) its not long before it becomes apparent that he is more than a little ipso facto completely freaking nutso.

It would appear that Davis is suffering from severe PTSD but not in a passive away. Rather he is a one man demolition squad, looking to rip it up at every opportunity, even if that means committing some serious felonies that you would imagine a future cop would prefer to avoid. He's also not averse to roping in his ex-army buddy Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) and dragging him down right along with him.

Davis is the very definition of a loose cannon, and you know its not going to be long before he hurts someone. But at the same time you can't help but root for the guy, and this is where the genius of Bale's performance really manifests itself. Even though Davis is a major league self-centered jerk, who pretends to care deeply about his friends but really only gives a crap about himself, you can't help but like the guy. He's ridiculously charming and persuasive and Mike (and the audience) is helpless putty in his hands, even after he makes one bone-headed decision after another.

It would seem from my description that Harsh Times is not a fun movie, and indeed there are several moments where you wince and the ending is as downbeat as it gets, but what redeems it from being a total downer is that Bale is also extremely funny. There is a scene where in order to rig his urine test for his LAPD entrance exam he has to insert a catheter up his urinary tract, without anaesthetic. Sounds pretty terrible right? But its as funny as hell. The dude is crazeeee in a very dark but still likeable way. I guess we all knew someone like Jim Davis growing up. The lunatic who was a little scary but a lot of fun to be with. They either grow up and get their shit together (usually with a woman's help) or they go off the deep end. Although Jim Davis has the woman, he doesn't seem able to save himself. In one of the movies most gut-wrenching scenes he even pulls a gun on her in order to frighten her off. He's on a downward spiral and not even his best friend can pull him out of it.

The movie was not a popular hit on its release, no surprise there. Although it wasn't lumped in with other 'war movies' like In the Valley of Elah and Stop-Loss (and more recently Brothers with Tobey Maguire and Jake Gylenhaall, it was), like those movies, very much about what war does to the people. Many soldiers return from conflict unable to re-integrate back to society and worse than that. Its a difficult, uncomfortable scenario and the army certainly doesn't like to admit to any of it. Given that the war itself is still an ongoing event and that anything less than total support for the troops (if not the war effort itself) is seen as an unpatriotic, moves like Harsh Times can be a little too close to the bone. Be that as it may, its still a brilliant assessment of what happens when you train a person to kill, to commit extreme acts of violence, and then expect them to be able to put all that in a box, lock it away and function normally like nothing ever happened.

The Prestige (2006)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Players: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlet Johanssen, Rebecca Hall, Michael Caine

Easily one of my favourite movies of the last decade, The Prestige is a return to the glory days of movie making. It's got everything. Suspense, intrigue, mystery, glamour, great writing and acting, awesome actors, costumes, David Bowie, the works... and it's all about Magic. Yeah, that old hokum. Its pretty hard to make a movie about magic intriguing in this day and age, but Christopher Nolan is up to it. Nolan is the guy who made Memento back in the day, a low budget nothing movie using then little known Aussie actor Guy Pearce and US character actor Joe 'Pants' Pantoliano.  Memento was smart, quite devilishly clever in fact, and caused a bit of a stir no mistake. It got Nolan on the fast track to Hollywood and he hasnt disappointed. OK he made a Batman movie but most people seem to think it was one of the best. Anyhoo, when he's not doing superhero movies Nolan likes to do stuff like The Prestige and Inception, so we'll forgive him the guy in a funny suit lapse. The Prestige is vintage Nolan. 'Now you see it, now you don't' territory. He's a great sleight of hand artist Mr Nolan is so, of course, the subject of illusion would appeal to him. The Prestige is set in turn of the century England when people took stuff like this really seriously. There were no movies back then so people went to the theater, dah-ling. The upper crust went to see proper plays and stuff and the riff-raff went to see illusionists. People who sawed ladies in half sort of thing. Where Nolan succeeds is that it never looks tacky or seedy. As much as the audience in the movie is taken in by what they are watching so are we. Much of this has to do with the tricky dicky plot and the superb performances of the leads, noticeably our man Bale (although Jackman is equally good, although his is the flashier part, with more gnashing of the teeth and the like).

Where Bale really 'brings it' is that his performance is the polar opposite of the fireworks of Harsh Times. Its all low key and under the radar. His working class Alfred Borden is a man so wrapped up in his great and terrible secret he can't share anything with anyone, even his wife. Its a very tricky role to play and Bale does it masterfully, for once being able to play a role in something close to his native accent. In fact it is the sheer Britishness of the movie which helps to sell it. The period detail and costumes all help to create a world that is in itself magical. A world before electricity, when all things were possible. Like the great chameleon that he is, Bale occupies this world completely and once again makes you care deeply for the fate of his character, who is unjustly imprisoned and sentenced to die when the secret he harbours turns his great rival Angier into a madman bent on revenge. It's a deeply touching performance, one that turns on the theme of sacrifice, where a man will literally give up everything to stay at the top of his profession.

Rescue Dawn (2006)

Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog
Players: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies

For his next outing Bale chose to work with Werner Herzog, the well known German director who has a penchant for stories about men who go crazy in the jungle. In this case, the story (a true one) focuses on a chap called Dieter Dengler who was shot down in the jungles of Vietnam while on a bombing mission in Laos. He survives the crash and is captured by the NVA. Of course, the NVA weren't known for treating their prisoners too kindly and Dengler, along with a few other bods who have already checked into this downmarket version of the Hanoi Hilton, are subsequently brutalised to the point of total submission and even craziness. The cast is phenomenal and one of the pleasures of the film is seeing comedic actor Steve Zahn produce a truly powerful portrayal as one of Dengler's fellow prisoners.

While Bale's role in Rescue Dawn is not quite as complex as that of Jim Davis in Harsh Times and the movie is not a full-blown classic like The Prestige, its got plenty to hold the attention, and most of the substance is delivered by this trio of fine actors who portray the process of physical and mental degradation suffered by prisoners of war so accurately its frightening. To add to the authenticity, Bale does one of his now-famous shrinking acts and sheds several pounds during the course of the film. Davies, not exactly a buff physical specimen at the best of times,  is also skeletal in the film. These actors are truly committed to delivering total authenticity and in the hands of Werner Herzog, a man famous for driving his cast and crew to extremes, nothing less would suffice. In the end Rescue Dawn is a very moving account of one man's refusal to give up despite the worst possible odds. Herzog does a great job of delivering the day to day routine and crushing boredom of the men's lives in the camp without making the film feel like its a 100 years long. You can't help but shed a tear at the final denouement. Stories like this simply never get tired...

American Pyscho (2000)

Director: Mary Harron
Writer: Mary Harron
Players: Chistian Bale, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Chloe Sevigny

Based on the infamous novel by Bret Easton Ellis, AP is a brilliant satire on the true horror of being a yuppie in New York in the heady days of the 80s real estate boom. The darkest of black comedies, it follows the descent into full blown madness of the perfectly groomed and attired Patrick Bateman, who is the ultimate hollow man. Bateman is the opposite of the stereotypical serial killer, successful, socially adept, physically perfect and very good with the ladies. However, that doesn't hide the fact that he has a sucking black hole where his soul is meant to be, and finds it impossible to resist murdering the girls who get drawn into his irresistable web of charm. Usually with a chainsaw.

Despite its premise AP is as funny as it is bizarre and the thick streak of black humour that runs through the film is beautifully handled by the director and Bale. Probably one of the funniest scenes in the history of cinema involves a table full of detestable yuppie scum all comparing business cards in an attempt to outdo one another. Its screamingly funny, and probably too close to the actual truth for comfort. Another classic involves Bateman reeling off the reasons he is the world's biggest Phil Collins fan while he lays down thick plastic sheeting in his spotless apartment in order not to make a mess while he slaughters another hapless victim. With his trademark blend of intensity and take-no-prisoners immersion in the role, Bale makes an indelible mark as the 'hero' who is way too tightly wrapped to handle the pressures of climbing the corporate ladder while the sharks circle beneath. The supporting cast is equally stellar, with a superb Willem Dafoe delivering another note perfect turn as the detective who knows Bateman is rotten but can't prove it. Chloe Sevigny is at her doe-eyed best as Bateman's hapless secretary.

While some say the movie can't match the book (big surprise) I didnt feel an immediate need to rush out and read the book after seeing the movie. I totally got Easton Ellis' message - listening to too much crap 80s music will drive you insane.