(On Cable TV, August 2019) I’m not a big fan of small-town dramas, but there are two or three things that make Splendor in the Grass worth a look. The first is the most obvious: the casting. With Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in the lead, there’s additional interest that other movies with lesser-known actors may not have. The other is more subtle, but with its premise turning around the dilemmas experienced by two circa-1928 teenagers dealing with romance, sex, and future prospects, you can feel the film trying to say something about the changing perception of teenagers as of 1961. Splendor in the Grass, directly written for the big screen, is nonetheless messy in ways that originally scripted movies usually aren’t: At times, with its time skips and changes of situation, it feels like an adaptation of a novel being overly slavish to the source material. There are a few melodramatic junctions that stretch the bounds of a believable drama, but so it goes. Director Eliza Kazan was trying for something more than comforting formula here, and the result manages to transcend specific time or place. But even if you’re not having any fun seeing the story go where it goes, at least there’s Wood and Beatty delivering early great performances.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) There is such a heady brew of elements in Bugsy that I wonder why I’m not so happy with the result. It is, after all, a mixture of crime, Hollywood, gambling and empire building, as a mob enforcer goes to Los Angeles in 1940, discovers the allure of Classic Hollywood, and starts dreaming about building a big gambling town in the Nevada desert. It’s easy why the role of “Bugsy” Siegel would have some attraction for Warren Beatty: a mixture of a powerful criminal, decisive lover, futurist dreamer and Golden-Age Hollywood glamour—a fast-talking con man with the ruthlessness to back it up. Plus, the lead female role belonged to Annette Bening, whom he met during shooting and eventually married. Technically, the film is solid: great production values, veteran director Barry Levinson at the helm, and good actors in the main roles. But Bugsy isn’t quite as slick as its components would suggest. The script shows some contempt for its character by titling itself after a nickname he hated. The pacing is unhurried, quite unlike the character it portrays. The ending is as obvious as it’s drawn out. And so the film’s highlights (such as a visit to a movie set) are drowned in so much minutiae that the entire thing feels lifeless in comparison to its subject. Maybe I’ll revisit Bugsy someday and see if I was just in a bad mood, or if the film does not align with its own centre.
(In French, On Cable TV, March 2019) For at least a decade, Ishtar was a punchline among movie fans for anything having to do with a high-budget bomb. Even despite featuring no less than Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, and a shoot in a far-flung exotic location, Ishtar got swept in a storm of production problems involving a perfectionist first-time director, two stars with massive egos, a vicious studio reorganization, and incredible budgetary overruns. (Seriously; a summary of Ishtar’s production history reads like a train wreck in motion.) By the time the much-delayed and infamously troubled Ishtar made it to the public, critics were positively salivating for blood in taking down the film. Thirty years later, well, Ishtar’s not entirely bad. Nominally, it’s still about two mediocre songwriters getting swept in revolutionary intrigue in a Saharan country. Perhaps the worst thing we can say about it is that it’s underwhelming. It’s occasionally funny by force of dialogue or absurdity, but writer-director Elaine May’s direction is often badly handled and much of the film’s self-satisfied tone is clearly irritating. It gets off the wrong foot with annoying characters and then never recovers from it: While the idea of having Dustin Hoffman being the suave one and Warren Beatty the socially inept one is a funny bit of counter-typecasting, the novelty of it quickly wears off. What’s left is decidedly less interesting than what the critical savaging at the time suggested—especially if you’re expecting a terrible movie: the reality is far more middle-of-the-road. Ishtar remains just your average malfunctioning comedy, albeit one with a much bigger budget and star power than you’d expect.
(Second Viewing, In French, On Cable TV, January 2019) Back in 1990, Hollywood really wanted audiences to go see Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. After the success of Batman in 1989, it had been designated as the most likely contender for the Summer Box-Office crown. I remember the overwhelming marketing push. It didn’t quite work out that way: While Dick Tracy did decent business, movies such as Ghost and Die Hard 2 did much better. Still, the film had its qualities (it did get nominated for seven Academy Awards) and even today it does remain a bit of a curio. Much of its interest comes from a conscious intention to replicate the primary colours of the film’s 1930s comic-book pulp origins: the atmosphere of the film is gorgeous and equally steeped in Depression-era gangster movies and comic-book excess. A tremendous amount of often-grotesque prosthetics were used to transform a surprising ensemble cast of known names (Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, James Caan … geez) into the caricatures of Tracy’s world. Beatty himself shows up as Tracy, square-jawed and willing to give his best to a film he also directed and produced. Madonna also shows up, but she ends up being more adequate than anything else. Dick Tracy’s big twist is very easy to guess, but this isn’t a film that you watch for the overarching plot: it’s far more interesting when it lingers in the nooks and corner of its heightened vision of 1930s cops-vs-gangsters cartoons. Visually, the film holds its own by virtue of being one of the last big-budget productions without CGI: the matte paintings are spectacular, and you can feel the effort that went into physically creating the film’s off-kilter reality. The question here remains whether the film would have been better had it focused either on a more realistic gangster film, or an even more cartoonish film. Considering the original inspiration, there was probably no other option than an uncomfortable middle ground. In some ways, I’m more impressed by Dick Tracy now than I was when I saw it in 1990 (at the drive-in!)—I wasn’t expecting as much, and I’m now more thankful than ever that it lives on as how big budget 1990 Hollywood rendered the gangster 1930s.
(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.