John Farr: Christian Bale: So Many Good Parts, but Is There a Part Missing?

When Christian Bale won his Oscar for The Fighter (2010), I was hardly surprised, but nor was I elated. And I had to ask myself why.

This now hugely successful movie star is prodigiously talented, blazing with intensity and intelligence — not to mention killer good looks.

Still — with apologies to all the self-proclaimed “Baleheads” out there, on an emotional level the actor leaves me cold.

This fact got me thinking about how we relate to public figures and celebrities, and the importance of that elusive, yet fundamental human connection- admiring someone famous not just for their ability, but because we feel we know and “get” them.

In the realm of major politicians and movie stars, the “likeability” factor has always been important. This quality has helped more than a few undistinguished if not downright inept politicians get by. The clearest recent example for me is George W. Bush.

Though frequently hapless and inarticulate, many Americans liked him not only for his policies, but also because he seemed like the kind of guy who’d be fun to have a beer with.

Think of all the movie actors — past and present — who’ve made their careers out of a distinctive yet innate likeability in their characters: Clark Gable, James Stewart, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Alec Guinness, Cary Grant, Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, Tobey Maguire.

Then there are less approachable personalities whom we like less, but still respect and understand. Again in the political arena, our current President falls under this heading.

You may sense Obama wouldn’t be as much fun on a fishing trip as good ol’ “W”, but you recognize the challenging path he took to get to the summit of public life, and how that shaped his character. If you’re like me, you value his moral principles, sharp mind and cool head as President.

In the movies, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck had that sort of restrained yet virtuous quality now exemplified by Obama.

Next we have a more complex variety of actor: think Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin, Robert de Niro, Sean Penn. We relate to these personalities primarily because they embody the angst, courage and defiance of the rebel. They’re familiar to us, because at their core they feel things very deeply and most always show some trace of vulnerability — and we admire them for it.

Of course our best actors can straddle more than one category: Spencer Tracy could be likeable, restrained, or intense, seemingly with just a flick of the switch, as could Jack Lemmon. These were “actors’ actors”, and they come along rarely.

I appreciate all the stars I’ve mentioned because right or wrong, I feel I have some kind of handle on them. I can look behind their eyes and see something that forges an instinctive connection.

Christian Bale on the other hand strikes me as a complete enigma. Yes, his acting chops are prodigious, but he seems to me to be all technique and no heart; we get buckets of perfectly formed ice, but very little fire. I see nothing behind his eyes.

Case in point: his portrayal of Bruce Wayne. Admittedly not the deepest of roles, it’s still important to get it right. To my mind, this is a guy we’re supposed to like. Particularly in 2008’s The Dark Knight, I felt Bale turned him into a conceited jerk, a slick, humorless “master of the universe” with a supermodel on each arm.

Why play him that way? Just to be different?

Tellingly, Bale’s star-making turn in that perverse shocker, American Psycho (2000), a part he almost lost to the more established Leonardo Di Caprio, seemed tailor-made for his cold, remote quality because basically he was playing a monster in an Armani suit.

It’s clear he does best in tortured roles: his finest work — and my favorite Bale movie by Farr® — is The Machinist (2004), where Christian plays an insomniac industrial worker whose lack of sleep is driving him mad — a demanding part for which he actually shed 60 pounds! (One thing not in doubt is Bale’s dedication to his craft.)

But in a feature like 3:10 To Yuma (2007), a remake that pales next to the 1957 original, he falls flat in a role that calls for a modicum of emotional resonance, as a father, crippled by the Civil War and an elder son’s perception of his cowardice, redeems himself by guarding a deadly outlaw against overwhelming odds.

When Bale’s character says goodbye to his boy, very likely for the last time, I should have been moved, but alas, not one tear, nary a goose bump, materialized.

(In the prior version, Van Heflin brought so much more feeling to this part, and his character was not even physically maimed… it was a purely psychological take, much more subtle, and in my view, ten times more effective. Watch it and see.)

All of which brings me to The Fighter. Bale does turn in a bravura performance, and it must have posed a considerable challenge for this British actor to essay the part of a working class New England pug. Still, I can’t help remembering Jimmy Cagney’s famous advice to actors: “Don’t let ’em catch you at it.” I may be alone here, but as good as he was, I felt I caught Bale acting in this film.

We know very little about Christian Bale the man because he is intensely private. That is his right, and should be respected, within reason. After all, any serious movie actor who doesn’t realize he’s choosing the most public of careers when he signs on ought to have his head examined.

In the plus column, we know he is exceedingly bright (no surprise), a loyal friend, extremely family-oriented, and supportive of good works. On the debit side, he is known to be prickly and prone to temperament- perhaps not that unusual for a performer whose unsettled, peripatetic early life created a burning ambition to succeed in his chosen field at virtually any cost.

Still, there are limits.

His prolonged ranting at a crew member who broke his concentration on the set of 2009’s Terminator Salvation was caught on tape and widely circulated online. While reportedly an isolated incident, which Bale has apologized (and paid the price) for, still the extent of the abuse was so out of proportion to the offense as to be slightly creepy, if not downright shocking.

So, who are you, Christian? A bona-fide misanthrope, an angry man struggling with his demons, or (deep down) a sweet, sensitive guy who’s just really shy? Give us a sign, will you?

Right now Christian Bale is sitting at the very top of his profession and can do most anything he wants. I’d suggest a change of pace — perhaps a light comedy?

Not that he needs my vote, but one thing’s for sure: I’ll appreciate him a lot more when I can see something familiar and sympathetic behind those steely, impenetrable eyes.

Unsure what to rent on Netflix? Visit www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com

To see John’s videos for WNET-Channel 13, go to www.reel13.org

Michael Terry: Yay for Open Source!

So I’ve avoided talking about the latest kerfuffle in Ubuntuland because I might be biased, working as I do for Canonical. But here’s a bit of musing inspired by it.

Progress

I’d like to focus a bit on how awesome the world is. Open source software is becoming a common and accepted tool. A person anywhere in the world can download and install for free a distribution like Ubuntu or Fedora and have a first class experience. It will come packed with powerful software like Firefox and LibreOffice.

You can provision a virtual server from someone like Amazon, fill it with services like a web server, a code repository, you name it. You can go from idea to website in seconds flat.

Need to look something up? Just ask Wikipedia, the rapidly enlarging sum of human knowledge. Want to buy a phone? Pick up a Linux-based Android smartphone.

If you step back a bit, that is amazing. Open source is empowering the world, literally making it a better place. The best (and defining) part is that each advancement can build upon the previous ones.

Design

But the best technical design with the most features isn’t going to change the world — or even just be as helpful as it can be — unless it’s easy and fun to use. That’s why I love that design-driven development is gaining more cachet in open source. I’m glad to see the efforts by Ubuntu’s Ayatana team and GNOME’s design team to cross the chasm and reach new users.

Motivation

Anyway, this is all part of why I work in the open source sphere. Not just to scratch my own itches, but because I believe I can use my skills to leave a lasting mark and to empower others. I’m incredibly blessed to be able to work in such communities and with such companies.

I just find it hard to get worked up over whether buttons are on the left or the right, whether the user can minimize a window, or whether GNOME and Canonical are getting along 70% or 90%.

Not that such discussions aren’t worth having, but it’s easy to get caught up in navel-gazing. We’re all on the same team. We’re trying to change the world, and it’s worth remembering every now and then that we are succeeding!

Protein in brain linked to autism

Scientists have shown how a single protein may trigger autistic spectrum disorders by stopping effective communication between brain cells.

Will Durst: Pitchforks and Rainbows

America dodged the immediate damage of the killer tsunami but a potentially more dangerous phenomenon threatens to wash across our nation. The new political paradigm — concrete intransigency. No quarter asked for — no quarter given. Us versus Them, and Us is me. And whoever likes me at the time. The Colosseum relocated to the Senate. I’m so right and you’re so wrong that anybody who agrees with you should be ambushed, assaulted and abused.

Say what you will about the Liberals, for the most part, they actually believe deep down in their hearts that impoverished kids enrolled in Head Start programs can contribute to society and make the world a better place to live. For all of us. And rich people should pay for that. Conservatives wonder why these kids don’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps the way they did when daddy bequeathed them their first oil well. Life is a race and anybody with a Head Start is cheating. Anybody not part of their family, that is.

These basic attitudes stem from deep-rooted philosophical differences. The Liberal idea is by helping the greater good, it will eventually come back and benefit everyone. While Conservatives believe exactly the opposite. By helping themselves, it will eventually come back and benefit themselves.

And now that politics is a 24/ 7 media proposition, those positions are calcifying. Conservative voices dominating center stage today can be divided into three groups. The Greedy. The Mean. And the Stupid. They live in a black and white land where compromise equals defeat and discussion means you taking notes while they talk. Liberals can be distilled into three groups as well. The Pompous. The Weak. And the Stupid. Their world is a rainbow of colors where the government provides everyone with that big box of 64 crayons encouraging them to write on the walls. Anybody’s walls.

Liberals want to nurture the brotherhood of man while Conservatives deem this mythical brotherhood just another left wing conspiracy trying to separate them from their money. Conservatives are sincerely of the opinion that they stole all their stuff fair and square, while Liberals think people with too much stuff should give some of their stuff to people who don’t have any stuff. The problem is nobody considers their collection of stuff to be too much.

Liberals want to reform prisoners. Conservatives don’t believe in taking any. Liberals would rather lose honorably than be accused of acting unfairly. As a matter of fact, Liberals are more comfortable losing than they are winning. Conservatives will do whatever it takes to win, including painting their kids’ teachers as the enemy. Not only are they bad losers, they’re bad winners as well.

Another odd thing is the two sides continue to play the game under entirely different narratives. Liberals act like associate producers at a folk fair trying to choreograph the welcoming dance of converging cultures failing to notice the ragged band of Conservatives lighting torches and running headlong towards them up the castle hill armed with pitchforks.

There’s a war going on but only one side seems aware of it. You’d think the mugging that went down in Wisconsin would be the sharp poke in the side necessary to wake Liberals up. But knowing them, they’ll probably be more concerned with strengthening the guardrails on the castle hill road and introducing legislation to reform pitchfork safety standards.


The New York Times says Emmy- nominated comedian and writer Will Durst “is quite possible the best political satirist working in the country today,” and the Chicago Tribune calls him a “hysterical hybrid of Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Osgood.” Follow his blog on Red Room to find out about upcoming stand- up and television performances and to buy his book, “The All- American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing,” and his newest CD, “Raging Moderate.”

10 Crazy Subway Moments Caught On Tape

In New York City (but really anywhere with an underground train) you have to expect to see ridiculous things happen on your commute. On one hand you might see a fight break out or something disgusting beyond belief. On the other hand, you never know when you’ll see an awe-inspiring or hilariously baffling performance or prank. You truly do roll the dice whenever you step on the train, and luckily you’ve got your cell phone camera ready like the people below did. We picked out our top 10 craziest subway moments caught on tape. Watch all the insanity unfold and vote for the most ridiculous video!