Saturday, 3 November 2018

Alternate Best Actor 1987: Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun

Christian Bale did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Jamie "Jim" Graham in Empire of the Sun.

Empire of the Sun is a somewhat curious attempt by Steven Spielberg into straight drama as his love of adventure and whimsy seems to muddle his intention of a loss of innocence through the story of a English boy in Japanese occupied China during World War II. The film is not without merit, however.

One of those merits is perhaps in the partial discovery of the talented Christian Bale. Obviously an actor who went onto acclaim in adulthood through his intense portrayals with a particularly extreme physical commitment to his roles. It is interesting then to look at Bale here who we see in the early scenes of the film as a soft spoiled school boy blissfully unaware in initially British controlled China. Although Bale is playing a bit of a brat this strangely enough is probably one of his most charismatic performances. He manages to not become excessively petulant in the portrayal of the character's attitude. Instead he makes it rather a natural curiosity within the character that includes seeing what he can "abuse" within his power he has in his initial privilege. Bale though establishes it well though with a more sympathetic child like wonder in the boy as he watches the culture around him, and becomes fascinated by aircraft. Bale brings the right specifically childlike wonder that sets up Jamie as very much interested in what surrounds him even if initially detached from it.

The film shifts itself quickly when the war directly hits China and Jamie is soon disposed from his world of luxury. He is separated from his parents and left to fend for himself within the war torn setting. Bale is excellent in these scenes in capturing the less focused intensity of the fear of the boy as he goes around looking for help. To the point he goes to a random self-centered ex-patriot named Basie (a kind of a miscast John Malkovich), whom he immediately looks up to. Bale plays this fascination with Basie well making the boy's loyalty to the obviously morally questionable man believable. He makes that fascination just so earnest and even heartfelt showing this innocence in his attitude suggesting the boy just simply must believe the man will help him. Of course the two quickly end up in a prison camp, and Basie nearly leaves Jim behind when they are about to be transferred to an internment camp. Bale has a great moment where he begs and pleas to go with him. Bale makes properly so messy of just this boy breaking down. He is decidedly not calculated in this which allows the moment to find the right naturalism as he shows it to still be Jamie as a boy just pleading for help from his new "father".

In the internment camp is where the problems in tone really arrive as Spielberg can't decide what film he is trying to tell with a strange mix of scenes. Spielberg himself seems to innocent to allow the innocence to go. In that we get Jamie, now Jim far more worldly as he survives in the camp. He only goes so far with this though still keeping it a boy playing a game of survival more than maturing to a survivalist. Bale's performance frankly conveys the themes little better as he fashions those softer side to bring a more inherent intensity, and even toughness in his portrayal. He brings a confidence within the tempering of emotions that effectively shows the boy beginning to understand the world he exists in. The film though shifts this with still those moments of wonderment in his moments of scrounging, and anything involving planes in the war. In these moments Jim is still fascinated by them, in nearly a childlike way, but with that greater intensity. The message Spielberg is trying to imply is perhaps a touch too vague, but Bale's portrayal of Jim's sincere devotion to aviation almost as a religion is remarkable. The passion is only more intense now, and Bale carries these moments to the point that they do have power even when their purpose is somewhat questionable. Is the idea that he's using these to hide his anguish, the film kind tries this but doesn't really pull off the idea very well. This is not a knock against Bale's work though as his moment of fully breaking down after a moment of jubilation is brilliantly performed. Again he excels in making it feel so authentic in the moment of Jim's painful realization of what he's lost, as this emotional turmoil, though the film fails to fully utilize this properly.

The film's ending is a particularly muddled element as Spielberg refuses to "grow up" despite wanting to tell a story of the loss of innocence. We see this through the whiplash in his direction that leaves Bale in a bit of strange place as Jim. In that we will have one scene of extreme horror in the sudden shooting of a young Japanese man that Jim desperately tries to resuscitate. Extremely well performed by Bale as he captures something childlike in his manic delivery that has this painful hope in it, wishing it like a child would. We then will get a strange moment of whimsy when he uncovers Basie's scrounged supplies and uses the old internment camp as a pseudo playground. The scene posits Jim fully as just a boy, and is out of place. There is nothing wrong with the way Bale captures the excitement however it is not natural by design. Spielberg kind of wants to make Come and See, but seems to timid to commit to the proposition. This becomes far more evident in the final scene which switches again where we meet Jim in an orphanage. There the loss of innocence is shown and Bale is terrific in bringing the intensity in thousand yard stare, almost an indicator of the nature of his future performances. Bale does capture that loss of that innocence of the boy's curiosity, however the power of that is lost because Spielberg frankly bungles it. None of this is Bale's fault, as he gives a very good performance here that actually illustrates the central conceit better than the film does, to the point the film gets kind of in the way of his performance.


Emi Grant said...

Louis: Which would be your updated Top 10 Christian Bale scenes/moments?

I just caught up with Bohemian Rhapsody, which while far from perfect, is at least enjoyable. Wouldn't really mind Malek doing good in the awards season.

Charles H said...

Saw Bohemian Rhapsody. I would say the Ray/Walk the Line comparison is apt. Although unlike those films Malek is more than intriguing as the lead. He's my #2 or #3 in lead so far.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Your updated ratings for the cast.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: What did you think of Paul Giamatti's scene with Tom Hollander in John Adams.

Luke Higham said...

My overall prediction
1. Lone
2. Rourke
3. Nicholson
4. Grant
5. Candy
6. Brooks
7. Hurt
8. Oldman
9. Elwes
10. Martin (Roxanne)
11. Ganz
12. O'Quinn
13. Rourke (Barfly)
14. Bale
15. Short
16. Martin (Planes, Trains And Automobiles)
17. Kinski
18. Nicholson (The Witches Of Eastwick)
19. Harris (Walker)
20. Douglas (Wall Street)

And with Supporting, I actually think Will Patton will be reviewed and quite possibly upgraded for No Way Out.

Robert MacFarlane said...

Just a personal opinion, but I thought Martin was much better in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles than Roxanne.

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the screenplays of Nashville and The Player.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Looking at 1994 Lead, I really hope you're reviewing De Niro as a bonus outside the 10 lineup since I do not see an upgrade happening at all.

These are the contenders that I could find.

Tom Cruise - Interview With The Vampire
Kevin Bacon - The River Wild
Shah Rukh Khan - Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa
Bruce Greenwood - Exotica
Woody Harrelson - Natural Born Killers
Ge You - To Live
Temuera Morrison - Once Were Warriors
Albert Finney - The Browning Version
Brandon Lee - The Crow
Ewan McGregor - Shallow Grave

Alt. Tommy Lee Jones - Cobb

Luke Higham said...

Maximilian Schell - Little Odessa
Daniel Auteuil/Jean-Hugues Anglade - La Reine Margot
Jean-Louis Trintignant - Three Colours: Red
Tommy Lee Jones - Natural Born Killers
Michael Keaton/Robert Duvall - The Paper (Not sure if this is a supporting ensemble film)
Alt. Anthony Hopkins - Legends Of The Fall

Anonymous said...

I've heard some good things about Jimmy Stewart's performance in Right of Way. Or do you guys think he's had enough reviews?

Bryan L. said...

Louis: Your 90s cast for Bad Times at the El Royale with Tarantino as director, and 70s cast for Live by Night with Coppola at the helm?

Bryan L. said...

Anyone else here find it a bit ironic that Bryan Singer, of all directors, covered Freddie Mercurys personal life in a rather thin approach? (Though he had to work with the script at his disposal)

Matt Mustin said...

Bryan L: Not really.

Louis Morgan said...

Emi Grant:

Might as well wait on that until Vice.


Malkovich - 3.5(Good even though miscast, I just think someone more overtly charismatic would've been better for the role, like William Holden as Sefton from Stalag 17.)
Richardson - 3
Havers - 3
Pantoliano - 3
Phillips - 2.5
Ibu - 2.5
Richard - 2.5
Frazer - 2.5

That scene is a marvelous one scene wonder scene, and it is an instance that I wish we had perhaps gotten a bit more of Adams as the very awkward diplomat. Both Giamatti and Hollander are terrific in the scene with Giamatti bringing the right falseness to every cordiality, and Hollander being a wonderful portrait of a restrained yet deranged hostility. The two are great in creating the moment as they speak the lines with the appropriate cordiality as the two seek common ground, while both express the intensity of both of their faces of two men who should be striking each other at any point.


Nashville's screenplay is a whole lot, of course supplemented heavily by Altman's use of improvisation, which is perhaps what led to it being snubbed, however that still seems extremely odd. The screenplay to the film provides the needed structure, situations, and basis for the characters in creating its complex satire of both the titular place and America in general. The screenplay itself would make a terrific film as is, Altman's methods only took it to greater heights as any good director should. In that the specific managing of the various story lines is already evident with the brilliance within all the different types of either the famous, fame seekers, or hanger-ons throughout the events of the film. The realization of the satire is key in the interactions which never feel forced, unlike some lesser ensemble films of the nature. It is a fluid narrative where the moments feel earned, through both entertaining and interesting interactions between these strange sorts congregating to a single city. Although the screenplay was used largely as a blueprint by Altman, it was still an essential element within the film and deserved recognition along with the rest of the film.

Louis Morgan said...

The Player is one of the best screenplays in an Altman film, and it is interesting in that it kind of combines the style of his more driven narratives along with his sprawling examinations of a subject. The Player at its simplest point works as this pseudo crime thriller in the story of the writer trying to murder the executive, and the whole mess that comes from that. That mess is not referring to the screenplay, which tightly plots that element cleverly allowing everything else to be wrapped around it. I will say there is also a key choice that is evident within the screenplay which is to keep a light touch around the central character. In that, despite his actions throughout, they do not bludgeon with being despicable. Instead allowing you to sort of sympathize with him at points, from having a far more unlikable rival, or just refraining from hammering in the point. This allows his final descent in a way to have a far greater impact, and it also just makes the film itself far more effective since we need to follow the characters throughout. Now this character and his thriller narrative are the rock solid foundation to which the satire of the Hollywood/studio system is built. Brilliantly as it is both outwardly amusing, yet biting with never tilting wrongly towards either absurdity or being mean spirited. It has just the moments of overt comedy, such as the writer's passionate pitch against his fist pump of approval for the manufactured Hollywood ending, or the quieter moments of the dog eat dog world in the endless game towards the top. This is also with just an extra layer of film references both overt and interwoven. The screenplay manages to create this complexity while always maintaining a natural simplicity that one could use as one of the best examples of how to write a satire.


That is a tv movie, so it's not technically illegible.


1990's Bad Times at the El Royale:

Father Flynn: Richard Harris
Darlene Sweet: Queen Latifah
Emily Summerspring: Uma Thurman
Laramie Sullivan: Kevin Kline
Rose Summerspring: Reese Witherspoon
Miles Miller: Joaquin Phoenix
Billy Lee: Brad Pitt

1970's Live By Night:

Joe Coughlin: Steve McQueen
Loretta Figgis: Linda Blair
Meso Pescatore: Abe Vigoda
Thomas Coughlin: William Holden
Albert White: Jason Robards
R.D. Pruitt: Dabney Coleman
Dion Bartolo: John Cazale
Emma Gould: Diana Rigg
Graciela Corrales: Susan Kohner
Chief Figgis: John Carradine

Calvin Law said...

Might be seeing Widows tomorrow.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: Me as well.

Calvin Law said...

Really looking forward to it, though looking at my schedule might have to wait till Wednesday or later. Also saw The Other Side of the Wind. Thought it was...interesting, but can't say I loved it or even liked it all that much.

Louis: I would go for Val Kilmer as Billy Lee, actually.

Calvin Law said...

Louis: thoughts on Gregory Scott Cummins, Chad Coleman, Roddy Piper, Lance Barber and Catherine Reitman on 'It's Always Sunny'.