(In French, On TV, December 2018) I’m starting to be old enough to realize how complex history can be, and how many little-known side stories, tangents and footnotes it contains. Now, thanks to Warren Beatty’s Reds, I know a little bit more about the American involvement in the Bolchevik Revolution of November 1917 and its aftermath. Beatty here produces, writes, directs and plays in a movie about American journalist John Reed, who witnessed those events first-hand, sent news reports and ended up writing a book about it. In addition to Reed’s reporting, the film does spend quite a bit of time chronicling his complex relationship with socialite Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton). If it feels like a history lesson, then this is an impression that the film actively courts—by including documentary footage of “witnesses” talking about Reed, Reds blurs the lines between fact and fiction, and further bolsters the epic scale of the result. The other thing that hits hard is the film’s mind-numbing 194 minutes, far too long even for the kind of massive world-changing epic that Reds has in mind. Still, if you can schedule your life around the movie, it’s quite an interesting history lesson that it has in mind—a corner of American history during which the country may have been tempted to back off from savage capitalism, and a milestone of Russian history seldom depicted sympathetically in American movies. It’s easy to imagine parallel realities emerging from America embracing at least some degree of socialism, as this film dramatizes the elements in play in the late 1910s. Now that Beatty has essentially retired (or at least retreated back in a safe corner), it’s easier to evaluate how daring much of his pre-1990s filmography could be, and with Reds he controlled the project from beginning to end. The result is a fiercely intelligent, provocative, unusual piece of work that may overstay its welcome, but nonetheless illuminates a pocket of history that deserves to be told.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) Despite suspecting better, I half-expected to like Shampoo. I’m usually receptive to critiques of the 1960s or Warren Beatty’s projects, and I like the concept of examining an era’s social more through the lenses of a specific day (here the election of Richard Nixon in November 1968). Shampoo, alas, proved to be a far more sombre experience than I expected. Beatty deservedly stars as an in-demand hairdresser able to use his job to meet women and maintain simultaneous affairs at once. Of course, such a character must not be allowed to profit, and much of the film details the ways in which his life implodes over the course of slightly more than a day. The playboy lifestyle is not played for laughs or wish-fulfillment, with the so-called comedy of the film being tinged with a substantial amount of humiliation, self-recrimination and missed opportunities. It’s not a whole lot of fun and if I had paid more attention to director Hal Ashby’s name or the 1975 year of release of the film I could have predicted that for myself. (For various reasons, my reactions to Ashby’s movies ranges from tepid liking to outright loathing—but then again that’s my reaction to most of the New Hollywood era in general.) Considering the downer plot and restrained laughs, I best reconciled myself with Shampoo as a period study, taking a look at the excesses of 1968 from the decade-long hangover of the 1970s. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) There’s no denying that Bonnie and Clyde still carries a strong mystique even today. It’s a reference that pops up every single time there’s a man-and-woman criminal team. It’s also a film that showed very clearly the state of Hollywood by the end of the sixties, sufficiently emboldened by the end of the Hays Code to start showing blood and gore in big-budget entertainment. I can’t quite picture how revolutionary or upsetting the film must have been at the time, with elaborately constructed scene in which people are shot in the head by criminals portrayed as heroes. Such things are, for better or for worse, far more common these days and so Bonnie and Clyde is approached differently today without the element of shock. Personal preferences certainly come into play—I had a surprisingly negative reaction to the film myself: being generally unreceptive to the stereotype of the heroic outlaw, I was unable to empathize much with the murdering anti-heroes. (I’m also Canadian, if that helps: “Peace, order and good government”) The film does have its qualities—Warren Beatty is at the top of his young roguish persona here, and let’s not forget Faye Dunaway’s presence either. Screen legends such as Gene Hackman and Gene Wilder also pop up in small roles, although modern viewers may be disappointed at their ineffectual characters or small roles. The infamous ending remains upsetting. Bonnie and Clyde, taken on its own fifty years later, is a great deal less special than it must have been. Despite remaining a pivotal film in Hollywood history, I’m not sure that it has aged all that well.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) Some movies hold up better than ever, but Heaven Can Wait isn’t one of them. The problem isn’t with the period detail, Warren Beatty’s performance or any of the 1978-specific aspects of the film. The problem is the annoying way in which its premise is executed. Beatty plays a lunkheaded football player who dies before his time and is sent back to Earth as a rich man with ongoing problems of his own. But what could have a sprightly fantasy ends up dragged by a script as dumb as its protagonist. Our dimwitted hero has trouble accepting that his football player body is gone, and keeps insisting that he’s going to play the SuperBowl anyway. The movie eventually obliges, in one of the most blatant instance of contrived plotting ever put on film. But the way from Point A to point B is made even worse by the moronic character, adding empty minutes to a film that should move much faster. There is a particularly egregious five-minute scene in which our protagonist laboriously recaps the film for the benefit of a friend, leaving viewers gnashing in exasperation. If the movie was reaching for a grand message on life and its preciousness, it’s more than muddled by the protagonist’s bull-headed insistence on not changing a thing. The body-switching aspect is more painful than amusing (see above about the stupidity of the script) and the laughs are few and far between in what’s supposed to be a comedy. If you haven’t seen it yet, Heaven can Wait can definitely wait.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) I really thought I’d like Bulworth more than I did. As a look in the life of an American politician, it’s not too bad: we get a feel for the trade-offs, the deals, the drudgery of the work. It’s even promising when it becomes obvious that the lead character has decided to give it all up and hires an assassin to take himself out. But then Bulworth decides to become heavily didactic, has its character raps through a few scenes and more or less gives up on any kind of unified tone. It doesn’t work, even despite the good efforts of the performers. Warren Beatty is very good as the titular politician; meanwhile, a young Halle Berry shows up as a young woman that teaches him the errors of his ways. (She gets a very good speech answering “Why do you think there are no more black leaders?”) Bulworth, to its credits, plays with a few daring ideas that remain evergreen (and I write this even despite the crazy electoral circus that was 2016), trying to pass along those ideas within a credible framework. (Witness Oliver Platt, shining as a political operative trying to keep his candidate on track.) But Bulworth ends up shooting itself in the foot a few times, most notably by having Beatty vamp it up by rapping at high-society events, adopting black speech patterns and trying to ingratiate himself in lower society. It’s often more embarrassing than successful, betraying a juvenile intent more than proving its political sophistication. By the end, Bulworth has become a grab bag of intriguing moment and cringe-worthy ones. Beatty the actor does well, but Beatty the director could have used more restraint and another script re-write. But then again, after the results of the 2016 American elections, it may be that our ability to distinguish satire from reality has completely evaporated.