Friday, April 4, 2014

Empire of the Sun


I am still incredibly upset over the indefinite postponement of my Kabuki stage musical spectacular. Margo Channing sent me a lovely condolence bouquet with a somewhat sarcastic note attached about how her Kabuki musical version of Stephen King's Christine (with Margo in the title role) is getting fabulous buzz in the entertainment press. There are times when I really hate that woman but I, as a true star, have risen above it and sent her a lovely gift basket of chrome polish and Turtle Wax. 

Joseph, my manager, has a lead on a possible new concert date. There's a luxurious cruise ship departing out of Miami next week that's looking for a headliner for the trip and he's sure I would be perfect for the job. He's in negotiations with the tour promoters now. I wouldn't mind a week of relaxation amongst the jeweled isles of the Caribbean after the stress of the last few weeks so I hope it works out. My first thought was to revive my
 Sink For Your Supper concert but Madame Rose, my publicist, suggested that songs about shipwrecks might not go over well on a boat - besides, the motorized iceberg would never fit on their small stage. I'll have to come up with a faboo new set and concept in the next few days and have Bob Mackie whip me up some stunning new outfits. 

While mulling things over in my mind, I invited my old chum, Nurse Lynn, over for dinner and a film in the home theater. Our choice of viewing for the evening was Steven Spielberg's
 Empire of the Sun from 1987. An attempt by the director to mix the adult themes, in which he was growing more interested as he matured as a filmmaker, with a child centered adventure story. The film was unjustly ignored by audiences in its original release and has only recently been re-released on DVD. 

Empire of the Sun
 is based on British author James Ballard's autobiographical novel of the same title. The young Ballard was eleven and living with his family in the international settlement in Shanghai when the Japanese invaded after Pearl Harbor, placing the Americans and Europeans who resided there in prison camps. Many years later, Ballard created a fictional alter-ego, James Graham and blended fact and fiction in his novel drawn from his experiences. The central outlines of the story are factual, but much of the detail and the supporting characters are fictional to suit novelistic purposes. 

In the film, we meet young Jamie (Christian Bale), a child of privilege in the international settlement of Shanghai in late 1941. The Japanese, in their ongoing war with China, have occupied much of the rest of the city but have left the Europeans and Americans alone in their secure enclave where they live untouched by war. Waves of refugees are flooding into the city from the devastated countryside but Jamie remains oblivious to this inside the family's sumptuous home and behind the windows of the chauffeur driven limousine. The child is bright, inquisitive, has an inordinate love of airplanes and flight, and little fear. Talk of war infringes little on his world, even at a highly symbolic costume party attended by the European elite (one of the guests showing up dressed as Marie Antoinette)where the adults are obviously more nervous than he.

On the day after Pearl Harbor, everything changes. Japanese gunboats shell the city and the Japanese army marches in. In the ensuing pandemonium, Jamie is separated from his parents. A small child is easily overlooked by the Japanese who are rounding up the Europeans for prison camps and he survives at first in the deserted houses of his neighborhood. When the food runs out, he's forced out into an unfamiliar and hostile world. Here he runs into a couple of American survivor types, Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano). They are eventually captured and transported to a prison camp. The film then fast forwards to 1945, the last year of the war. Jamie, now Jim, is a young teen, suffering chronic malnutrition but having learned valuable survival skills in the camp. His adaptability allow him to live where others die in bombing raids or from extreme privation.

Spielberg, that most visual of directors, accomplishes great things in this film. His opening sequences of Shanghai, filmed on location, recreate a society whirling on the edge of the abyss succinctly in key images such as cinema posters and limousines moving through military checkpoints. The invasion, which follows hard upon, is brilliantly staged, building from an initial gunboat salvo through mass panic in the streets. It's a brilliant encapsulation of the terrors of war on a civilian population, anchored by Christian Bale's petrified anguish when separated from his mother. Several key scenes are evoked without a word - Jamie's discovery of his parents' fate read in traces of talcum powder on their bedroom floor, a daring trip outside the wire of the prison camp to catch a pheasant. Unfortunately, Spielberg tends to go over the top on occasion, especially young Jamie's embrace of an airplane in a shower of sparks, his cutting capers on a roof during a bombing run, or the turning of humanitarian food drop canisters into giant piƱatas.

Spielberg is aided by a literate script, a faithful adaptation of the novel, by playwright Tom Stoppard. The dialog is succinct, human and believable. It could, however, have been tightened considerably, especially the scenes in the prison camp. This middle section of the film tends to drag and Spielberg has a tendency to film the plucky Europeans as if they're in some sort of British holiday camp without quite enough food.

Young Bale, who has emerged as one of the better British actors of his generation, carries the film as Jamie/Jim. He's in nearly every scene and the story is seen through his eyes. It's a great juvenile performance - callow and above it all in the early scenes, haunted and weary later on. The supporting cast are also good in their mostly underwritten roles. Nigel Havers as the camp doctor and Miranda Richardson as an inmate who gives Jim what little mothering she can are fine, but don't have nearly enough to do. Malkovich and Pantoliano, both excellent character actors, sketch their roles quickly and, despite long absences from the screen, impress in their parts.

The DVD is a wide screen transfer of the film with good picture and sound quality. There is no commentary track. In addition to the film, there is an hour long 'making of' documentary detailing the location filming in Shanghai, and many of the effects used in recreating warfare and a vanished society.

Swimming pool golf. Pierrette outfit. Japanese in lingerie. Rickshaw jumping. Golf shoes. Airstrip manufacture. Gratuitous Ben Stiller. Tin cup beating. Weevil counting. Stolen soap. Stolen tomatoes. Abandoned luxury goods. Floating suitcase.

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