WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Christian Bale Emerges From the Holiday Shuffle….By Disappearing Into Someone Else)

Busy, scatter-shot week this.

–Saving Mr. Banks was actually charming (I feared it would only be pseudo).

–YouTube revealed that the reason Jennifer Aniston’s pseudo-strip scene in We’re the Millers fell flat in the theater was due to incompetent editing…Whew! I was worried that Jen had lost it there for a minute.

–The pseudo-hardcore of The Wolf of Wall Street proved, once again, that Marty Scorsese is the Norman Mailer of film directors (that is, an artist whose reputation for seriousness, or even basic competence, is completely mystifying) and also reminded me that he’s the only director who manages to get me actively rooting for his characters–all of them–to die. Not so much in hopes that they’ll go to some just reward as so that the movie will mercifully end. At least it was a notch up from the last time I subjected myself to one of his masterpieces in an actual theater. In that one he had me rooting against Jesus.

–Finished a biography of John Knox which I should be able to review next week and started the Library of America’s Ring Lardner collection which has put me in the exceedingly rare state of looking forward to getting up mornings.

What rose to the top out of all that–besides a lovely Christmas–was Christian Bale’s performance in American Hustle, which is so lived-in, intense and finely nuanced that he actually drags the whole movie to a level of awareness I’m pretty sure its makers didn’t think remotely possible.

The director, David Russell, is known for being quirky and here, that doesn’t really jibe with the story’s more or less classically “redemptive” structure. But, through all the stops and starts (high point, directorialy speaking, is the eerily effective use of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” over a slo-mo beginning, so good it survives being cut off a good minute too soon; low point is the disco scene which is not-quite-right on so many levels that explaining why would require its own post), Bale’s immersion into character somehow keeps the movie’s pulse beating.

Eventually, he literally pulls everyone else into themselves and elevates the whole enterprise. No small feat in a movie about con-men where Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper–who might not be the two shallowest performers on the planet but are certainly in the running–are the other main players and Jennifer Lawrence is laying on one of those walk-throughs (much lauded, I notice) that feel like a screen test delivered by an Oscar winner who can’t figure out why she’s being bothered when everybody knows she’s going to get the job anyway.

Like I said. It stops and starts.

Sooner or later, though, they all have to come up to Bale’s standard. It’s almost as if he left them no choice–as if his character’s reality finally became theirs.

I say this as someone who thought Bale made the perfect Batman for Christopher Nolan because he seemed so completely devoid of all remotely human qualities–just the kind of black hole that Nolan’s “vision” needed. I assumed Bale was basically a well-chosen cabbage, but this performance opens up the possibility that he was actually acting, which–even as a possibility only–certainly puts me in my place.

May have to go back and give those a second look.

Meanwhile, I wish American Hustle had found the sense of tragedy it seems built for (but then resolutely fails to deliver). In that respect it reminded me of the recent version of What Maisie Knew and was, finally, a bit of a letdown.

But the Method so rarely delivers what it is forever promising that it would be curmudgeonly not to acknowledge how far it can go when it works. Granted I don’t catch a lot of movies in theaters (only caught these because I have a friend who was exceedingly generous with AMC gift cards for the Holidays) but this was by far the best performance I saw this year.

God, I may end up having a rooting interest on Oscar night.

Very disorienting.

I better cross my fingers and blow out some candles. The New Year hasn’t even started and I’m already seeing hob-goblins everywhere!

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Hollywood Puts Old Wine In New Bottles…And Thereby Slightly Spoils It)

What Maisie Knew (2012)

This version of Henry James’ short novel (1897) has been lauded to the skies and, based only on the skill and fluidity with which it was made, that’s easily understandable.

But where the novel was haunting (James’ usual effect when he kept it brief), the movie is disturbing–and for all the wrong reasons.

Bad enough that Indy Hollywood can transform this story, in particular, into a happy ending and actually make it feel sort of earned. Evidently we’ve come to the place where even the cutting edge–and, yes, Henry James’ edges still cut–must come with the soothing balm wrapped right up next to the serrated knife. When Maisie is effectively claimed by her adoptive parents as her preferred substitutes for her biological ones at the end, it doesn’t so much feel liberating as chilling. What the six-year old wants, the six-year old gets because, well, she’s the one we’re rooting for…and this is still the movies.

Of course, it’s natural to root for her in the novel as well, but it’s also plainly evident we will have to risk going down with her when all is said and done. And if you’ve ever made it to the end of a Henry James novel, then you know going in just how great the risk of going down with her is–not just that the worst is coming but that he’ll make it hurt no matter how much your past experience with him has braced you for the fall.

This movie? Not so much.

The sense of risk that’s inherent in the setup is still there. I felt it throughout the movie. But the film makers pulled the punch at the end. Maisie’s not doomed to unhappiness here. And it turns out that a version of What Maisie Knew where the child isn’t doomed is basically a fairy tale.

And because the film makers made this very strange decision, it casts the brilliant performance by six-year old Onata Aprile into a different and highly unsettling light. The fact that she has more stylized close-ups than Garbo in Camille was merely cloying as I watched the film.

She’s gorgeous. I get it

She’s also six. Enough already with the “old soul” heartstrings.

Those lingering close-ups became more disturbing in retrospect, though.

When the end I was expecting didn’t quite come about–when the possibility of going down with her evaporated because, well, she seems to have put herself in a pretty good place–it made the whole thing seem as if the child gets her wish precisely because she’s gorgeous. As if no child who failed to inspire good old-fashioned Golden Age Hollywood camera lust could possibly expect the same.

The rules are different, it seems, if Maisie happens to look like Onata Aprile.

It’s probably not fair to allow this to undercut Aprile’s naturalistic performance, which, when the camera isn’t completely invested in making us fall in love with her–when she’s allowed to be six, in other words–is truly wondrous and makes every one of the highly skilled adults she’s working with seem forced and self-conscious by comparison.

On that level alone, it’s up there with Roddy McDowall in How Green Was My Valley or Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon or Hayley Mills in Tiger Bay or Jackie Cooper in The Champ or whoever you think the benchmark for child performance in a movie should be.

And, yes, all the more amazing because she’s only six.

I only wish Indy Hollywood had found the nerve to do as much justice by her as Henry James did when he dreamed her up a century and more ago.