Film Brief: The Big Short

The Big Short - poster

The Big Short follows three parties who fail to intersect while chasing the novel idea of shorting the housing market.  It’s good strong material muted, which is to say mishandled, by the maker of Anchorman, and you can see what I thought of the last Anchorman movie.  The director Adam McKay employed a trite ‘wink and a nod,’ talking into the camera shtick which didn’t do the film any favors, a further sign of the filmmaker’s lack of skill in weaving his yarn.

So The Big Short is borderline thumbs-down, but it projected a lively spirit, the performances were well crafted, and it wasn’t boring, so 6/10.

Comparison Notes: Recommended better options: Wall Street, American Psycho, Glengarry Glen Ross; Not Recommended: The Wolf of Wall Street


Christian Bale Movies on Netflix

For some reason, “Ryan Gosling Movies on Netflix” has endured as by far the most popular post on my site.  Ironic, I think, considering the post is no longer accurate  — only All Good Things remains.  Too bad, but that’s the here today, gone tomorrow nature of Netflix.  And also a little funny that that’s my most popular post; I think it’s hitting Google when people search, which they could just as easily do directly on Netflix.

Christian Bale movies - text blockWith that, I wanted to point out two outstanding Christian Bale films currently on Netflix.  A friend of mine and I disagree on who’s the better actor – Ryan Gosling or Christian Bale.  It’s clear to me that Gosling has demonstrated greater breadth, but Bale is no slouch.

The first Christian Bale film I wanted to highlight is American Psycho, the visionary masterpiece I wrote about in 2013.

When you’ve had adequate time to recuperate from that, check out The Machinist [prior post].  It is not quite the complete triumph of American Psycho, but it’s still a great film.

Netflix includes a handful of lesser Christian Bale films, such as Out of the Furnace.  But American Psycho and The Machinist by themselves are worth six months of a Netflix subscription.

Don’t Get American Hustle’d

A new Christmas tradition is in the works: me watching a crappy David O. Russell film.  It is a tradition that I sincerely hope does not become too firmly established.  Now I am being a little too harsh — American Hustle is not exactly crappy, it’s American Hustle - posterjust not good.  About half-way through, I thought to myself — “hey, I think this is that new film by the Silver Linings Playbook director.”

I thought this not because it is bad, but because of the manner in which it is bad.  I forget what scene it was that triggered my association to last year’s picture, but, despite the very different subject matter, these two films have a similar feel — that feel of a story not coming together.  It’s as if Russell read a manual on how to put together a movie, and said, OK, let’s add this piece to this piece, and throw in some 70’s fashion and music, let good actors do their job and we’ll have a good movie.

With a Tomatoemeter score of 94%, it has succeeded where it wanted to.  To me, it felt like four great films — Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, and P.T. Anderson’s fabulous Boogie Nights, blended together and spit out the other end, resulting in a film just under half the quality of any of one of those.  After stumbling out of the starting block, American Hustle finally got to a point where I was enjoying a couple scenes, but faltered again down the stretch.  I walked out thinking what a non-story, really, what a non-movie that was.

As to the critical acclaim?  Critics think the acting was stellar here.   Christian Bale gained a lot of weight for the role, even the more impressive remembering his weight loss for The Machinist.  But something about his character, and to some extent, those of Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams, somehow didn’t ring true to me.  Hard to put my finger on it, but perhaps it was the context of the poorly executed film.  The performances seemed as arbitrary as the plot elements.

Also arbitrary: otherwise fitting 70’s-era popular music.  These are all great tracks, but except for the disco scene (Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”), the songs seemed completely disconnected from anything happening in the picture.  They were thrown in in the same dishonest way that Silver Linings was marketed with a song that did not appear in the movie.

Amy Adams and Christian Bale

Amy Adams and Christian Bale

That brings me to the other reason critics liked this film — they were taken by the vintage fashion, music, culture, and historical context of Abscam.  To me it’s a big snow job.  American Hustle is a simpleton’s movie.  It’s a good movie for people who are blinded by the facade.

You might think that I really hated this movie, but there were moments that became more and more enjoyable as the movie finally began hitting its stride.  I would have liked to see more Louis C.K., who was great here.  But in the end this was a deeply dissatisfying film.  Those critics applauding the film?  The only thing they or anyone else is going to remember about this movie five years from now is, oh yeah, that movie where Christian Bale was fat and bald.  4/10 

Film Brief: Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnacen - posterTHERE’S PRETTY MUCH NO REASON for Out of the Furnace, unless you’re interested in seeing Woody Harrelson in an even more evil role than Rampart.  It’s got a giant, very talented cast — besides Harrelson, there’s Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, and Forest Whitaker.  I really liked Affleck, who’s turning out to be someone like Mark Wahlberg or Ryan Gosling as someone who’s always compelling on screen.

But this is a lackluster, tired, big so-what of a story.  With inconsequential commentary on a soldier returning home from war, I reckon it’s trying to be a sort of modern-day Deer Hunter — but this is no Deer Hunter.  The cast is mostly wasted here, but they do a good job with what they have, and individual scenes are well handled.  The main fault I have with this movie is the uninspired plot framed by an amateurish narrative structure.  4/10

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Comparison Notes: Recommended: The Deer HunterMystic River, My Name Is Joe, PrisonersThe Machinist; Not Recommended: The Place Beyond the Pines

Great Perfomances: The Machinist


Christian Bale as Trevor Reznik, in his hopeful place

To understand what a great actor Christian Bale is, forget about Batman and watch American Psycho.  Then watch a comedy to reset your mood, and then go right back to the dark spaces with The Machinist (2004).  It is a great movie with an extraordinary performance by Bale.  I can’t add much to the review by Stephen Holden of The Times:

Christian Bale’s 63-pound weight loss for his role in “The Machinist” may take the cake (or is it a diet wafer?) as an example of an actor’s starving for his art. To play Trevor Reznik, the skeletal insomniac who stalks through this bleak psychological thriller, this buff star of “American Psycho” reduced himself to a walking 120-pound cadaver.

“The Machinist” may be an expertly manipulated exercise in psychological horror, but that’s all it is. Don’t look for the kind of metaphoric weight you’d find in a movie by David Lynch or David Fincher. As Trevor’s world fragments and closes in, and friends turn into enemies, the pieces of his decomposing mind slowly come together to finish the story. Not until the very last moment do they snap into a completed puzzle that’s as tight as a steel trap.

Before watching this movie, I was unaware that Bale had slimmed down to do the role, and was unsure what I was seeing — it was such an almost otherworldly, Holocaust-like look I thought it might be special effects.  Bale received no recognition from the Academy for his work in The Machinist, and that’s a shame.  This is a worthwhile and memorable film which deserves some accolades.

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Comparison Notes: Recommended: Raging Bull, Synecdoche, New York, Secret Window, Mulholland Dr., Being John Malkovich, Inland Empire, Fight Club; Not Recommended: Memento; Unknown: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Monday Mania: American Psycho

American Psycho Poster

My first exposure to Christian Bale was in the visionary masterpiece American Psycho (2000).  To give you a flavor for this film, I point to the Times review by Stephen Holden:

From the opening credits, in which drops of blood are confused with red berry sauce drizzled on an exquisitely arranged plate of nouvelle cuisine, the movie establishes its insidious balance of humor and aestheticized gore. That sly confusion between the beautiful and the gruesome extends to the language of the screenplay….

As Patrick embarks on his series of grisly murders, each of which only whets his appetite for further carnage, the movie portrays his acts of violence as increasingly frustrated attempts to be noticed. But either Patrick’s armor of designer labels and hard-bodied readiness is impenetrable or else no one wants to look below his surface to the murderous inner child. Ultimately, his escalating blood lust gives new meaning to the term ”narcissistic rage.”

This movie includes a case in point of the rarely-used cinematic device of what not to show: after having sex with two call girls in his home, he opens a drawer filled with implements — nasty little tools — and tells them, “We’re not through yet.”  Sheer wickedness.  The scene then cuts to the women hurriedly leaving his apartment, damaged in some unspecific way and very upset.  What exactly did he do with those implements?  That’s the brilliance of the scene: use your imagination.

American Psycho strongly divided both critics and audiences, so a warning: you might really hate it.  If that’s the case you may not have much use for my blog, because as I’ve mentioned before, I like movies that stand up and out.  Blandness is not welcome here.

I think even those who don’t like this movie can agree that Christian Bale’s tour de force is something to behold.  American Psycho is a joyfully murderous romp, a perfectly twisted complement to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.  10/10

Film Brief: Public Enemies

Not much to say on this one.  There are a number of redeeming elements, but otherwise an inability especially early on of how to tell a story.  In other words, it is impossible to become engaged with this movie.  Compare how this movie starts — the badly-blown first jailbreak scene — to the sense of mystery that was developed in early frames of No Country for Old Men.  Or think about that first sequence in Drive.

In the last third or so there are a couple decent sequences including a shoot-out in the woods that starts to turn this movie around, but by then it’s too late.  And Johnny Depp, who is always interesting no matter what he does, is a bore in this one.  Almost seems to be phoning it in.  3/10.