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Public Enemies (#110 of 6)

Box Office Rap Out of the Furnace and Christian Bale’s Body (of Work)

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Box Office Rap: Out of the Furnace and Christian Bale’s Body (of Work)
Box Office Rap: Out of the Furnace and Christian Bale’s Body (of Work)

As Bane raises Batman above his head and prepares to snap his back in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane postulates, “I was wondering what would break first: your spirit or your body!” The scene is faithful to the comic books for its “krakt” intensity, but also reflexive insofar as it speaks to Christian Bale’s acting career, which has been founded on consistent bodily transformation and, before donning the cape for Christopher Nolan’s franchise, a lack of commercial success that could have easily broken the actor’s spirit in becoming an A-list star. Yet, even after the Batman films, Bale’s financial viability removed from franchise confines remains questionable, and one wonders with Out of the Furnace opening this weekend if Bale’s name alone is enough to guarantee a $10 million opening.

Bale’s career began as a child actor in films like Empire of the Sun and Newsies, but it wasn’t until 2000’s American Psycho that he found a leading role that began to define his star persona. As Patrick Bateman, Bale’s slender, muscular body and strikingly handsome face were apparent enough, but perhaps more surprising was the ease with which the actor seemed to project Bateman’s affability-masking-psychopathy lifestyle, wielding an ax with the same quotidian detachment as when he visits the tanning salon. Roger Ebert said in his review of the film that “Bale is heroic in the way he allows the character to leap joyfully into despicability; there is no instinct for self-preservation here, and that is one mark of a good actor.” Audiences generally agreed, as the $7 million film grossed just over $15 million domestically.

Cannes Film Festival 2012: Lawless

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Cannes Film Festival 2012: <em>Lawless</em>
Cannes Film Festival 2012: <em>Lawless</em>

Lawless cements the mainstreaming of an original. Compare director John Hillcoat’s latest to the standard set by The Proposition, an uncompromisingly bleak and ultraviolent outback western: Both films were written by musician Nick Cave, and both films tell a tale of one violent family pitted against the forces of institutional corruption as well as each other. In the balance, Lawless winds up feeling, well, toothless.

Based on true events that occurred in Franklin County, Virginia, in the 1930s, Lawless is a period crime film along the lines of Michael Mann’s superior Public Enemies, a film that actually does tweak the legends it depicts, rather than just mealy mouth some random dialogue meant to give that impression. Moonshine bootleggers the Bondurant brothers have encouraged the legend that they are invincible. A war is brewing that will put that legend to the test—a war between a local politicians who wants to rationalize and organize the illegal distilleries of the region and the Bondurants, who want no part of it, rugged individualists to the bitter end that they are.

Film Comment Selects 2010: Nucingen House

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Film Comment Selects 2010: <em>Nucingen House</em>
Film Comment Selects 2010: <em>Nucingen House</em>

It’s fitting that the title of Raúl Ruiz’s latest, Nucingen House, should not place primacy on character, plot, or theme, but on the physical setting itself. A sprawling mansion isolated in 1920s rural Chile, the locale is fairly standard-issue as spooky cinematic chateaus go: long, lonely hallways, verdant gardens filled with ominous statues, and a dramatically winding master staircase. From these familiar spaces, however, Ruiz conjures a singular atmosphere of free-floating unease, pitched somewhere between feverish camp and deadpan surrealism. Long after Nucingen House’s riffs on identity displacement and the porous boundary between reality and dream-state dissipate from the mind, the sense of place that Ruiz evokes here—strange yet strangely complete in its nutso logic—lingers on, bubbling to the surface of your thoughts when you least expect it.

Acting on the (Blind) Sidelines

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Acting on the (Blind) Sidelines
Acting on the (Blind) Sidelines

The Blind Side, which has reportedly made close to 200 million dollars, is based on a true story (the operative word is “based,” of course). If its makers were accused of racism, surely they would be surprised and defensive; maybe they didn’t notice that underneath the inspirational basis of their narrative is a fixation with the idea of sex between the lily-white, condescending caretaker played by Sandra Bullock and Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) her black “gentle giant” charge. It’s a ghastly but revealing movie, not least for one scene with Adriane Lenox, a stage actress who won a Tony as the mother in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Cast as Michael’s errant, drug-addicted mother, Lenox takes her role, which amounts to only a few lines of dialogue, and fills it out with such delicate, shamed emotion that it’s hard not to resent the director for insistently cutting back to Our Star, the ever-bland Bullock, who listens in such an oblivious, absent way to Lenox’s heartfelt attempts to communicate that I was reminded of Lana Turner inanely marveling at the fact that her long-time maid Annie (Juanita Moore) has friends in Imitation of Life (1959). Fifty years later, we’re still stuck with movie star white supremacy, smiling vacantly for untold millions of dollars, while exciting black actors and black characters continue to lead lives on the outskirts of films when they would be so much more vital at their center.

Understanding Screenwriting #30: The Hurt Locker, (500) Days of Summer, Chéri, Public Enemies, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #30: <em>The Hurt Locker</em>, <em>(500) Days of Summer</em>, <em>Chéri</em>, <em>Public Enemies</em>, & More
Understanding Screenwriting #30: <em>The Hurt Locker</em>, <em>(500) Days of Summer</em>, <em>Chéri</em>, <em>Public Enemies</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Hurt Locker, (500) Days of Summer, Chéri, Public Enemies, The Undercover Man, Union Pacific, 1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year, Moonfleet, The Mouse That Roared, Drop Dead Diva, Disneyland Summer 2009 but first…

Fan Mail: You guys are letting me down. I would have figured that in US#29 my comments on Departures, Tetro and two Fellini films would have ticked off somebody enough to comment, but I guess not. So on to the newest haul of goodies.

The Hurt Locker (2008. Written by Mark Boal. 131 minutes): Sometimes first-timers get it right.

The film opens in Iraq in 2004. We are with a three-man bomb disposal squad. The leader, a careful veteran named Thompson, prepares to deal with a possible bomb by the side of the road. He sends out the robot, then goes himself. The other two hang back, since they are clearly supporting characters and may get zapped quickly. Thompson is the star of the unit, and since he is played by Guy Pearce, the one recognizable face, he is obviously the star of the-BOOM-he’s dead. If they are going to kill off Guy Pearce so quickly, nobody is safe, which Boal needs to establish. The scene also establishes the careful techniques required in bomb disposal.

The Conversations: Michael Mann

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The Conversations: Michael Mann
The Conversations: Michael Mann

Ed Howard: During the course of our conversation about David Fincher earlier this year, I posited Fincher as one of the few modern American directors who fit the classical model for the Hollywood auteur: someone who makes intensely personal and idiosyncratic films, in a variety of styles and forms, within the Hollywood studio system. I’d suggest that Michael Mann is another of these rare directors, bringing personal style to the Hollywood film at a time when American directors are increasingly either independent auteurs or blockbuster craftsmen for the big studios (or, in the case of fence-sitters like Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh, shuffling back and forth between the two extremes). Mann’s body of work exists entirely within recognizable generic forms: the crime film (Thief, Heat, Public Enemies), the thriller (Manhunter, Collateral, Miami Vice), the horror film (The Keep), the epic Western (The Last of the Mohicans), the biopic (Ali), the “based on a true story” social drama (The Insider).

His films, almost without exception, tell straightforward, direct stories, the kinds of stories that writing gurus love because they can be summed up in a single sentence. And yet these stories are seldom the main point with Mann. He can be a conventional storyteller if he needs to be, but his default mode—and, I think, his preferred mode—is to place the emphasis on mood, on atmosphere, rather than on narrative. He’s more interested in the accumulation of small details than he is in how they fit together into the big picture. He’s more interested in archetypes and how they feed into his signature themes than he is in crafting fully realized characters in their own right.

He also loves playing with light, color, focus, composition, with the elements of form. He’s a stylist working in a context where style is generally a secondary concern. How many big-budget action/crime films spend as much time on setting mood as Heat? How many heist pictures would rhapsodize over the spray of sparks from a welding torch, as Mann does in Thief? If most modern genre films consider style second (if at all), for Mann, in contrast, there are times when style seems to be his only concern.