Tag Archives: Christian Bale

Cloudy with a Chance of Beefcake

Thor: Love and Thunder

by Hope Madden

Filmmaker Taika Waititi hit a gleefully discordant note with his first venture into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His Thor: Ragnarok was silly. It held no particular reverence for superheroes, even its own.

Who knew it would be such a welcome change of pace, and so very suited to Chris Hemsworth’s comic talent? Of course, Thor still had Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to play with, plus the great Cate Blanchette as a goth goddess Hela. Hell yes.

Thor: Love and Thunder does not benefit from the previous installment’s villainous one-two punch. But Christian Bale is no slouch.

Bale plays Gorr the God Butcher. The name alone gives you a sense of why Thor is in trouble. The weird thing is, though Bale’s performance intrigues, it’s as if he’s in an entirely different movie.

In Thor’s corner of this fight is the formidable Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), as well as another familiar face. Natalie Portman returns as Thor’s ex, Dr. Jane Foster, who now commands the Hammer of the Gods herself.

But after fighting his own flesh and blood to save his entire people and culture in the last episode, crushing on his ex while protecting his own skin feels pretty superficial. It’s a slight premise with weak stakes.

Even Waititi seems to think so. Thor and company visit the secret assembly of the gods to ask for help in defeating this new menace. The way Waititi (who co-writes Jennifer Kaytin Robinson) stages the whole bacchanal makes it hard to argue Gorr the God Butcher’s logic.

An interesting act of subversion or wishy-washy storytelling? Hard to say. Waititi’s focus on the film’s aesthetic is clearer, though.

Thor: Love and Thunder evokes a Saturday morning kids’ show, complete with hokey costumes and props. Here Waititi revels in the superficial, the kitschy and commercial. He’s a filmmaker who balances cynicism and goofiness as few can. He hits a couple of clever gags with a jealous Stormbreaker, too.

So, it’s fun. But it’s by no means the inspired fun of Ragnarok. None of the jokes land as well, and the action never approaches the same level of swagger and panache. And it just keeps getting harder to root against Marvel’s villains.

Nice Guys Finish Last

Ford v Ferrari

by Matt Weiner

Director James Mangold has a knack for turning the comfortable biopic formula into something genuinely gripping, even when it’s not surprising. In the case of Ford v Ferrari, the film manages to be both.

Anchored by contrasting performances from Matt Damon as the legendary racer and auto engineer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as his prickly driver of choice Ken Miles, Ford v Ferrari condenses the staid American automaker’s quest to challenge Ferrari’s dominance in sports car racing as a way of injecting the company with a shot of glamor for younger car buyers.

The site chosen for that showdown is the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, a grueling endurance race that no American-made car had yet to win. Shelby previously notched a victory with an Aston Martin in 1959 before retiring as a driver due to health problems.

Although Shelby and Miles were accomplished designers and engineers, the story (by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller) uses a light touch when it comes to detailing the actual car building. There’s almost as much time spent in the boardroom as there is on the racetrack.

And the film is all the better for it, as the conflict turns out to be less about Ferrari and more between the misfits Shelby and Miles and the rigid executives at Ford. (The exception is Lee Iacocca, archly portrayed by Jon Bernthal as a budding Don Draper of Detroit.)

But Ford v Ferrari is still a racing movie, and Mangold delivers when the action moves onto the track. In fact he probably deserves extra credit for heightening the tension during a 24-hour endurance race. How many tea breaks were there in Days of Thunder?

There are also the requisite glimpses of danger (this is a biopic), but the script—and especially Bale’s giddy Miles—bring out the meditative joy as well. It hasn’t been this entertaining to hear Bale yell at people in his accent since Terminator Salvation.

Miles and Shelby get a bit of the tortured artist treatment, but just a bit. The film is after something that in its own small way is more subversive: the friendship, love and respect these men have for each other. (Yes, the focus is almost entirely on men, boys and their toys, but at least Caitriona Balfe gets to do more than sketch the faintest outlines of a long-suffering wife. Barely.)

The film builds to the race in France, but Mangold is in top form when he’s remixing and interrogating Americana, from country in Walk the Line to the western in Logan. Ford v Ferrari continues these reflections on our most storied icons, and the world-weary characters who must bear those burdens for the myth to survive.

Trickier Dick

Vice

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Remember when the Vice President of the United States shot some guy in the face, and then the guy with the snoot full of buckshot apologized to the V.P. for all the trouble? That really happened!

When did the upper reaches of the Executive Branch go so brazenly corrupt, so treasonously, moronically, dumpster-fire-with-a-spray-tan wrong?

It’s not as recent as you think.

With Vice, writer/director Adam McKay remembers a time long before moronic presidential tweet storms, when the quiet, steady rise of a ruthless power broker rewrote American politics and changed the course of history.

V.P. Dick Cheney was often thought of as the de facto decision-maker in George W. Bush’s presidency, and McKay uses absurdist humor and a spellbinding cast to give that line of thinking a more weighty focus.

Christian Bale is characteristically flawless as Cheney. With added girth from (according to Bale) “eating pies” and the trademark Burgess-Meredith -as-the-Penguin speech pattern, the physical transformation alone is astounding. But it is the way Cheney’s cut throat ambition, scorched-earth power grabs and soulless devotion to ideology contrasted with his familial tenderness that Bale articulates so astutely.

Because of, or perhaps in spite of, his legacy, Cheney is a fascinating figure, and Bale makes that fact endlessly resonate.

But fittingly, Vice‘s secret weapon is Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife Lynne who commands the screen as equally as Bale. In a performance full of subtle power of ferocity, Adams casts Mrs. Cheney as a pivotal and equally ambitious partner in Cheney’s climb, publicly lessening his weakness as a politician and privately demanding his allegiance to their plan.

Bale and Adams anchor an utterly glorious ensemble (including Sam Rockwell as “W” and Steve Carrell as a dead ringer for Donald Rumsfeld) that—with the help of McKay’s blistering script and wise direction—utilizes comedy to inform, illustrate, and act as an outlet for the otherwise soul-blackening disgust one might carry around with them concerning the American political system.

In 2015, after a slew of directorial successes including Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, McKay redefined the term “filmmaker Adam McKay” with the blistering, cynical, hilarious, informative and angry The Big Short.

In an act of all out heroism or masochism, McKay did all he could to help us understand the housing collapse with that film. He so understood his material (dry) and his audience (confused/disinterested) that he would cut away periodically to let a bubble-bath-soaking Margot Robbie explain a bit of vocabulary.

It was perhaps his way of saying: This is really important, guys. Pay attention!

Turns out, McKay is just as pissed off about the polluting of American politics, with his conspicuous outrage and biting comic sensibilities again proving to be powerful fuel.

From the film’s false ending and sudden Shakespearean detour to the unapologetic face-shooting, Vice has a definite “can you believe this shit?” air about it, a nod to the need to laugh so you won’t start crying.

Thanks to McKay and his tremendous cast, you might just do both.





Still Searching

Hostiles

by Hope Madden

Hey, Christian Bale and Ben Foster are in another Western. Remember how fun 3:10 to Yuma was?!

Well, writer/director Scott Cooper is a very serious man. If there is one thing you won’t call his films—Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass and his latest, Hostiles—it’s a laugh riot.

Hostiles is a morose Western with too-obvious intentions. Thanks to Bale and cinematographer Mesanobu Takayanagi, though, the result is a graceful if revisionist image. With Takayanagi’s help, Cooper recalls the best of John Ford’s The Searchers, and with Bale’s help he rectifies its worst.

Facing retirement from a lifetime of warring with Native Americans across the West, Capt. Joseph Blocker (Bale) has one final assignment: escort the ailing Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana so he can die with his people.

After many years of hatred and resentment toward Native Americans in general and Yellow Hawk in particular, Blocker wants no part in this “parade.” But he is a good soldier.

The journey offers opportunities for many an adventure, the first of which is the meeting of homesteader Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike). Blocker’s party finds her in her burned-out home, but we already know what happened thanks to the profoundly brutal attack that opened the film.

Over the course of the film’s 133-minute running time, lessons are learned, each one coming at a very bloody cost. Though Bale and most of the supporting players deliver quietly devastating performances, their arcs feel more than forced. They feel patronizing.

Mainly that’s because the Native American actors have no such arcs. Studi, along with Adam Beach, Tanaya Beatty, Q’orianka Kilcher and Xavier Horsechief—the prisoners—are one-dimensional beings of pure wisdom, compassion and nobility.

Which is no doubt preferable to the being nameless, bloodthirsty monsters that stand in for Apache characters.

Cooper sets his tale at a bitter transition in American history when civilization was beginning to overtake the Wild West and people like Blocker were no longer sure of their purpose, no longer comfortable with their past. Like Blocker, Cooper seems determined to right a wrong but, again like his character, he doesn’t seem to know quite how to do it.





Housing Collapse Hilarity

The Big Short

by Hope Madden

Earlier this year, Adam McKay won the Hollywood Film Awards Breakthrough Directing trophy. Adam McKay – director of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys – broke through just this year? How can that be?

If you think you know Adam McKay, you haven’t seen The Big Short.

With the help of just about every A-lister in Hollywood – including Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale – he tackles the oft addressed yet rarely entertaining topic of America’s housing collapse. What he seeks to do, in as enjoyable a way as possible, is illuminate the truth of the whole sordid mess. And as his film points out in one of its appropriate screen titles: Truth is like poetry, and most people fucking hate poetry.

McKay cross cuts the stories of four different groups of outsiders who foresaw the housing collapse, learned of the unimaginable corruption that weakened the housing market in the first place, and took advantage.

Obviously McKay is known for comedy, and though this is at its heart a drama, the director’s conspicuous outrage as well as his biting comic sensibilities fuel the film, propelling it in a way that has been lacking in any other movie on the topic.

McKay knows this is dry stuff. He addresses that fact head on, stopping periodically to help you understand key terms and ideas with cut-aways. Margot Robbie sits in a bubble bath to define a term, or Selena Gomez uses black jack as a metaphor to explain another. It’s a cheeky, clever approach, but one that rings with a healthy sense of cynicism. He’s begging: Please, you guys, this is very important stuff! Pay attention! Get pissed!

Christian Bale excels as the socially awkward Dr. Michael Burry, the hedge fund investor who first notices the weakness in the US housing market. It’s not a showy performance, but one whisper-close to comedy. Pitt’s is an understated but needed presence – the film’s conscience, more or less. Meanwhile Steve Carell and Gosling again team up nicely as a couple of driven misfits reluctantly fond of one another.

McKay makes no one a hero – including the film’s heroes – and underscores the entire effort with sympathy for the abused working class victim of the eventual, global financial collapse.

Yes, it’s tough material, and even with McKay’s bag of tricks, he can’t always keep the content both clear and lively. But he makes a valiant attempt, one that proves he is more than just a funny guy. He’s a breakthrough.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





Fright Club: Before They Were Stars

We spend a lot of time examining skeletons in the closets of major celebrities – the god-awful horror movies where they got their start. But today, we celebrate that handful of aspiring actors who get their start in really decent horror movies – some you’ve probably seen, some you may not have. Before these guys were stars, they lucked into a good one, so check them out!

5. My Little Eye (2002)

This quasi-found footage style gem is hardly flawless, but it creeps around dark ideas and delivers some nasty moments. Five youngsters volunteer to live Real World-style for a year, being filmed for an online channel contest. If they all stay for the full year, they win a million dollars. If anyone leaves, they all lose the cash.

Co-written by James Watkins, who appears again on this countdown, the story remains claustrophobic until the introduction of one handsome, lost hiker (Bradley Cooper) who’s not what he seems.

This is just Cooper’s second feature, releasing shortly after Wet Hot American Summer, and his onscreen presence breathes life to an intentionally drab atmosphere. His character is a catalyst for horrors aplenty, but his performance offers a glimpse of good things to come.

4. A Nightmare on Elm St. (1984)

Johnny Depp made his film debut in Wes Craven’s groundbreaking nightmare. Craven said in interviews that he almost didn’t cast the future heartthrob, thinking he was too pasty and weird for the role, but his daughter’s swooning convinced him.

Depp plays Glen, boyfriend to bossy Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), epicenter of Freddy Krueger’s revenge from beyond. Though his performance doesn’t necessarily predict an Oscar-nominated future, he delivers his lines more thoughtfully than most of the cast. Plus, what a death scene!

3. A Perfect Getaway (2009)

This is another underseen flick, boasting some solid performances that make the most of decent, twisty writing in a identity reversal horror story. In his second feature, Chris Hemsworth is half of one of the three couples traveling through Hawaii that get mixed up in a mystery surrounding serial killers. The ever-versatile Steve Zahn plays beautifully against type, while Timothy Olyphant offers another hard-edged but fun performance.

For the film to work, you need to always be guessing as to who may or may not be the killer. Hemsworth’s performance is one you revisit, is-he-or-isn’t-he style. He’s menacing from his first appearance, but shows some of the versatility that would help him climb quickly out of supporting roles.

2. Eden Lake (2008)

Again with James Watkins! He writes and directs this brutal and brilliant culture clash, but his real talent may be in casting. Michael Fassbender proves here what everyone knows by now – he is a brilliant, limitless actor. His Steve takes girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Reilly – also excellent) to an old quarry about to be revitalized as an upscale community – to the distaste of the low scale community currently roaming its beaches.

Fassbender plumbs his character’s depths. By turns smug and cowardly, superior and kind hearted, Steve is a real human being – the kind rarely seen in a horror film. And while Reilly’s strength is another uniqueness that makes the film stand out, the introduction to Jack O’Connell’s evicerating talent as alpha thug is no doubt what makes Eden Lake so painfully memorable.

1. American psycho (2000)

The star-studdedness just keeps growing! Jared Leto, Josh Lucas, Chloe Sevigny, Justin Theroux, Reese Witherspoon! But, of course, the main reason to remember the film is the lunatic genius of Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, soulless Wall Street psychopath.

He’s helped, of course, by director Mary Harron’s faultless direction – effortlessly balancing the blackest of comedy with inspired bloodletting. So many scenes are iconic by this point, all of them involving Bale as the beautiful shell of a human being, filled mostly with vacuous musical taste and a lust for blood.

Listen to the whole conversation over on FRIGHT CLUB!





Day 11: American Psycho

American Psycho (2000)

A giddy hatchet to the head of the abiding culture of the Eighties, American Psycho represents the sleekest, most confident black comedy – perhaps ever. Director Mary Harron trimmed Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, giving it unerring focus. More importantly, the film soars due to Christian Bale’s utterly astonishing performance as narcissist, psychopath, and Huey Lewis fan Patrick Bateman.

There’s an elegant exaggeration to the satire afoot. Bateman is a slick, sleek Wall Street toady, pompous one minute because of his smart business cards and quick entrance into posh NYC eateries, cowed the next when a colleague whips out better cards and shorter wait times. For all his quest for status and perfection, he is a cog indistinguishable from everyone who surrounds him. The more glamour and flash on the outside, the more pronounced the abyss on the inside. What else can he do but turn to bloody, merciless slaughter? It’s a cry for help, really.

Harron’s send up of the soulless Reagan era is breathtakingly handled, from the set decoration to the soundtrack, but the film works as well as a horror picture as it does a comedy. Whether it’s Chloe Sevigny’s tenderness as Bateman’s smitten secretary or Cara Seymour’s world wearied vulnerability, the cast draws a real sense of empathy and dread that complicate the levity. We do not want to see these people harmed, and as hammy as it seems, you may almost call out to them: Look behind you!

As solid as this cast is, and top to bottom it is perfect, every performance is eclipsed by the lunatic genius of Bale’s work. Volatile, soulless, misogynistic and insane, yet somehow he also draws some empathy. It is wild, brilliant work that marked a talent preparing for big things.

 

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!





Halloween Countdown, Day 30

American Psycho (2000)

A giddy hatchet to the head of the abiding culture of the Eighties, American Psycho represents the sleekest, most confident black comedy – perhaps ever. Director Mary Harron trimmed Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, giving it unerring focus. More importantly, the film soars due to Christian Bale’s utterly astonishing performance as narcissist, psychopath, and Huey Lewis fan Patrick Bateman.

There’s an elegant exaggeration to the satire afoot. Bateman is a slick, sleek Wall Street toady, pompous one minute because of his smart business cards and quick entrance into posh NYC eateries, cowed the next when a colleague whips out better cards and shorter wait times. For all his quest for status and perfection, he is a cog indistinguishable from everyone who surrounds him. The more glamour and flash on the outside, the more pronounced the abyss on the inside. What else can he do but turn to bloody, merciless slaughter? It’s a cry for help, really.

Harron’s send up of the soulless Reagan era is breathtakingly handled, from the set decoration to the soundtrack, but the film works as well as a horror picture as it does a comedy. Whether it’s Chloe Sevigny’s tenderness as Bateman’s smitten secretary or Cara Seymour’s world wearied vulnerability, the cast draws a real sense of empathy and dread that complicate the levity. We do not want to see these people harmed, and as hammy as it seems, you may almost call out to them: Look behind you!

As solid as this cast is, and top to bottom it is perfect, every performance is eclipsed by the lunatic genius of Bale’s work. Volatile, soulless, misogynistic and insane and yet somehow he also draws some empathy. It is wild, brilliant work that marked a talent preparing for big things.

Released with an NC-17 rating, the film floundered immediately but has grown a worthy cult status over the years. It’s not for the squeamish or the literal minded, but for those open to an impeccably crafted horror comedy and a little wholesome Eighties tunes, it is a gem.





Do the Hustle!

American  Hustle

by Hope Madden

David O. Russell can direct the shit out of a movie, can’t he? He startled his way into our consciousness in ’94 with the unbelievable Spanking the Monkey, followed by a smattering of well-crafted, unmarketable, endlessly watchable films. Then he took a few years off and came back wearing his shootin’ boots.

The Fighter in 2010, followed by Silver Linings Playbook in 2012 racked up a grand total of 3 Oscars and another 13 nominations. That’s the way to shake off the artistic rust.

For his latest, American Hustle, Russell wisely cherry-picks castmates (a couple of Oscar winners among them) from his last two efforts to populate the world of 1978 and Abscam – the FBI sting that took down some corrupt public officials. And, as the screen announces just before the first disco-tastic image, “Some of this actually happened.”

One desperately ambitious FBI agent (an unhinged and glorious Bradley Cooper) pinches two con artists (Christian Bale, Amy Adams – both outstanding) and insists they help him finger other white collar criminals. But his dizzying hunger for significance pushes their con to untenable extremes, and soon these low-flying hustlers are eyeball deep in politicians, Feds and the mafia.

Russell orchestrates con upon con, braiding loyalty with opportunism with showmanship, and providing his dream cast with everything they need to erupt onscreen.

Joining the stellar performers mentioned are the always reliable Jeremy Renner and the reliably brilliant Jennifer Lawrence. As an unpredictable spitfire, Lawrence is right at home. She excels, and Russell teases the absolute most out of her every moment of screen time (it makes no sense now but trust me, you’ll never call a microwave oven by its correct name again).

Louis CK – in his second strong cinematic turn this year (alongside Blue Jasmine) – is a great onscreen curmudgeon, and he offers such a perfect foil for Cooper’s combustible lead that their scenes together are a scream.

Honestly, with the electricity on screen whenever Lawrence or Cooper appear, it’s almost possible to overlook Bale and Adams, but what a mistake that would be! Bale crawls into this character, as he does every character, and convinces us of the sleazy but good-hearted schlub inside this grifter.

Likewise, Adams – a performer so expressive with just a look – keeps you on your toes. It’s her flawless work as Edith (or is that Sydney?) that keeps all the cons spinning at once, and you never know exactly where her loyalties lie. In fact, you’re pretty sure she isn’t certain. Unless she’s just playing you.

While Russell’s fondness for Goodfellas colors the entire running time, there’s no question that his creation finds its own way and becomes something unique and fantastic. The writing is exceptional, the performances volcanic, and the result is the sharpest and most explosively funny movie in Oscar contention.

 

Verdict-4-5-Stars

 

 





Tough Time for a Brother’s Keeper

Out of the Furnace

by Hope Madden

Just in time for the holidays, a bleak look at desperation, blood ties, masculinity and loyalty. Welcome to Braddock, PA and Out of the Furnace.

Part Deer Hunter, part Winter’s Bone, Scott Cooper’s new film casts a haunted image of ugliness scarring natural beauty, whether it’s the steel town petering out and leaving a rusted carcass in a Pennsylvania valley, or the human nastiness up in the hills on the Jersey border.

The tale follows a pair of beleaguered brothers in America’s disappearing rust belt. It’s a deceptively simple story of being your brother’s keeper, but Cooper’s meandering storyline keeps you guessing, often entranced. Nothing is as simple as it seems, although there is an inevitability to everything that makes it feel strangely familiar.

Cooper’s camera evokes a palpable sense of place, and his script positions the film firmly and believably – but without a heavy hand – in a clear time period. The setting itself is so true and absorbing that many of the film’s flaws can almost be forgiven.

At the core of Furnace’s many successes are some powerful performances. Both Christian Bale and the endlessly under-appreciated Casey Affleck, as Russell and Rodney Baze, respectively, dig deep to uncover the anguish and resilience at the heart of the siblings’ relationship and struggles. Bale, in particular, smolders with a tenderness and deep love that is heartbreaking.

On the other hand, Woody Harrelson is just plain scary. As the villain (and excellently named) Harlan DeGroat, Harrelson goes all out, leaves nothing behind. Harlan is a Bad MoFo, no doubt, and Harrelson leaves no scenery unchewed.

Cooper stumbles here and there with his storytelling, though. There is some heavy-handed symbolism, and a letter written from one brother to another that’s almost too clichéd and trite to accept in the otherwise articulate piece of filmmaking.

Just four years ago, in his feature film debut Crazy Heart, Cooper led Jeff Bridges to his first Oscar, and Maggie Gyllenhaal to her first nomination. His sophomore effort is less assured, as if he’s trying too hard. His ability to conjure such a vivid place and time impresses, and both Bale and Affleck are characteristically wonderful, but the director can’t seem to reign in the entire cast, and he borrows too freely from other (excellent) movies.

While the stumbles aren’t crippling, they keep Out of the Furnace from the greatness it otherwise might have reached.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars