Reds (1981)

Reds – 1981

Director – Warren Beatty

Starring – Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Paul Sorvino

In terms of scale and message, the films generally found on the list of 1001 movies you need to see before you die tend towards epic.  If not in actual length, then in the scope of the story, the message, or even the acting.  Reds is no exception, delivering in each of these areas, but does it live up to the critical praise that I’ve heard going into watching it?  The answer…sort of.

Reds tells the sweeping story of journalist, John Reed, and his on again-off again-on again love interest Louise Bryant, feminist and fellow journalist.  The story of their relationship plays out against the backdrop of the Bolshevik revolution in what used to be Russian, then was the U.S.S.R., and is now Russia again.  The young idealists, find first attraction, then lust, and finally passion in both their marriage, and in the people’s movement taking place across the ocean from their home in New York.  Warren Beatty, acting as director as well as the star, and lead character of the film, plays Reed, an affable yet driven man passionate about the voice of the working man.  Louise, played by Diane Keaton, is determined to be a writer yet has trouble gaining recognition for anything other than being Reed’s girl.

The smoldering relationship between Bryant and Reed is central to the success of the story, whereas the political message was muddied a decent amount for me because of the fact that the film pre-supposes a certain amount of knowledge about world history.  Since I came to the film not knowing as much as I would have liked, I feel that I missed out on a good portion of what I was supposed to be appreciating.  As such I wasn’t as enamored with the film as I feel I would have been otherwise.

In terms of production value, set-pieces, costuming, and feel, the film leaves nothing to the imagination.  We are treated to a rich tapestry of the lives of those living in the early 1900’s.  Some of this production value is seen, while more is added through the inclusion of testimony of those who had lived through these events.  This testimony often served as chapter breaks for the film, and took the form of on-camera interviews discussing the real-life people (Reed and Bryant) being played by Keaton and Beatty.  This tended to give the dramatized portion of the film more weight, more than it would have had on its own at any rate.

With the exception of Diane Keaton (of whom I am just not a fan), the casting of the film was fantastic.  I particularly liked, Beatty, Jack Nicholson as boozy writer Eugene O’Neil, and Maureen Stapleton as the impassioned and deported Emma Goldman.  With the exception of Beatty, each other character was played by someone who was perfectly matched for the role they were playing.  Again with the exception of Mr. Beatty, no one actor was able to steal the limelight and outshine the next one.  That is, of course, not to say that Beatty was bad in the role, or that he did a disservice to the film by acting in it, on the contrary, I would be willing to bet that without his star power the film would never have been made at the scale that it was.  He does, however, turn in the least compelling performance, and is most likely of every other actor and actress in the film to rest on the laurels of good looks.

All in all, Reds was a compelling work that I still don’t feel that I fully appreciate, but I do appreciate it’s and Beatty’s commitment to turning out a quality product.  Not only do I recognize that fact, but I applaud it.  Not as fun or accomplished as Bonnie and Clyde, but well deserving of its place on the list.

“Man, Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton fuck a lot in this movie, every other scene they’re humping each other.” – Ashley

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

McCabeMrsMiller

McCabe and Mrs. Miller – 1971

Director – Robert Altman

Starring – Warren Beatty and Julie Christie

So we come to yet another Robert Altman movie. This time Altman subverts the western genre, transforming a series of characters from cookie cutter black and whites into more realistic grays and earth tones. Warren Beatty plays the McCabe of the title, arriving in a new frontier town in the Pacific Northwest with his sights set on jump starting the gambling and whore house industries. His reputation in town precedes him as the bartender bolsters his reputation by telling stories of his “gunfighting past” (it’s not revealed till later whether or not this account of his past is rumor or authentic). The town folk, rapt with attention, line up to hear his stories, play poker with him, and to sample his wares. His operation is going well, and McCabe grows more and more full of himself until Mrs. Miller, another entrepreneur new arrival in town, shoots holes in his rather short-sighted and limited plans.

She knows the true potential for this sort of business in town, and more importantly she knows how to run it. She convinces McCabe to put up the cash and soon enough they are in business. Together, their business flourishes as does the rather one sided affection that McCabe feels for Miller. Her desire to legitimize the spot she has cut out for herself, serves as a blockade to McCabe’s attempts to sweep her off of her feet. The greater their success, the more amorous he tries to be, and the more distant she becomes.

When a large conglomerate business makes a take-it-or-leave-it offer to purchase the business, McCabe refuses in a bluff, attempting to squeeze a larger sum from the buyers. Mrs. Miller knows how ruthless these men can be, and does what she can to warn McCabe of the danger of playing with fire. Beatty’s “gunslinger” is full of the glory of his own legend, claims to know how to play the game. Unlike the rest of the townsfolk however, Mrs. Miller can see right through his posturing.

Altman’s tendency to turn archetypes on their heads, results in McCabe having the ego and confidence of a Hollywood cowboy, but without the skills or experience to back it up. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but up until now he’s been lucky. Despite her addiction to opium, Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller can see that plain as day, and resigns herself to what is almost a foregone conclusion at this point. What follows at the end of the film is brutish and inevitable.

When the shunned offer results in the conglomerate company sending a couple of fearsome, hired guns to forcibly relieve McCabe of his enterprise, his pomp and ego turns into bargaining and cowardice. The three men sent to kill McCabe are a scary bunch of outlaws who seem to fear nothing, or no-one. They run roughshod over the town, and the townspeople, taking what they want and killing indiscriminately. Rather than stepping out on the street and having a showdown, Altman’s characters fight it out like they would in real life, by hiding and through ambush. The bad guys fight dirty, and in order to stay alive, the good guys have to fight dirty too.

Altman’s change of venue from the arid southwest of the United States, to the chilly and bleak northwest provides just the right tone for the film. Bleak and foreboding, harsh and unforgiving. Altman had his cinematographer purposefully flash expose the film to light before developing to get that hazy 1800’s photo quality. Before learning this, I thought it was a bad transfer on my DVD, and it annoyed me to no end. Just like each of his other movies, I grew to appreciate it. While I never ended up loving how it looked, I could at least appreciate that the film itself was used as a tool through which the story was being told. Altman isn’t necessarily afraid of making the finished look of the film weathered and used, if it helps along the story.

The town’s sets in this movie, reminded me a lot of the apartment complex set from Rear Window. At first the flood of visual information seems overwhelming, but as the story progresses and the sets are used again and again, we become at home in them. They start to take on a reality, a three dimensionality, and a familiarity, that transcends the 2 hours or so that we inhabit them. I wouldn’t be surprised if this place is still standing somewhere (I guess I actually would be surprised, but the feeling of it being a real functioning place is no less diminished for it being gone in today’s world.)

Like each of Altman’s films that I’ve seen (and I suspect the ones I haven’t seen as well), The Long Goodbye, The Player, Short-Cuts, and M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a product made up of carefully laid out elements that form the cohesive whole. Film stock, film-developing, editing, direction, acting, sets, and costumes all work with one another towards a common goal. I started out not liking this movie, ready to write it off as a dud, but as I kept watching, I felt more invested in this little nook of the world. I felt like I grew with each of the characters as they went through the story.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Bonnie&Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde – 1967

Director – Arthur Penn

Starring – Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons and Michael J. Pollard

Bonnie and Clyde, a movie about the home-brewed gangsters of the 1930s, was one of a few films that typified the resurgence of creativity and control enjoyed by writers and directors during the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s.  Originally it was supposed to have been directed by the arthouse renowned Francois Truffaut.  Having cut his teeth as a film critic turned auteur director, his influence on the film can still be felt despite the fact that he opted to drop out in order to film Fahrenheit 451.

It’s roots in the French New Wave movement of the 1960’s are given room to grow in the wide open borders of the United States.  It manages to defy it’s temporal setting (the 30’s) and spoke about the state of affairs in our country during the late 1960s.  The impact of Vietnam and the violence being aired on the television every night could be felt in the bloody, ruthless, and sometimes relentless chase scenes between the two lovers and the police.  The counter-culture movement was represented by the two criminals themselves, while the police and the system of law represented everything from government, parents, the status quo right down to police and the system of law.

As the director and the producer, Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty made sure their rowdy, humorous, and somewhat nihilistic representation of change stayed true to it’s message.  Beatty and Faye Dunaway play the titular characters, and both are luminous and full of life and vitality.  Dunaway in particular really shines.  The film starts out with her rolling languidly around her bed, posing, and waiting for something anything to come along and be a catalyst.  It just so happens that when she looks out her bedroom window, that catalyst is preparing to steal her mother’s car.  The couple instantly take to each other, but for different reasons.  Bonnie see’s Clyde as a strong, exciting, virile change in her limited boring life.  She is sick of watching doors close, and takes it upon herself to jump out the nearest window.  It is the thrill that excites Bonnie, where as it is the attention that draws Clyde.  He seems to crave notoriety, first with Bonnie, then with the rest of the city, state, and eventually the country.  Not only does he seem to thrive on this type of danger and celebrity, he can’t seem to function properly without it.  He is unable to perform to any degree in bed without the adulation and danger that comes from committing crimes and being noticed.  This serves as a bit of hindrance to the relationship at first, but each of them become bound to the other simultaneously keeping the other afloat while dragging the other under.

Bonnie and Clyde serves as a number of firsts.  From the first appearance of classic actors such as Gene Hackman, and Gene Wilder, to the first ever occurance of a gun being fired and hitting the victim on screen at the same time.  The film is filled with equal parts optimism and pessimism.  Made for a relatively small budget, and not expected to do very well, the studio was suprised by the enormous popularity the film opened to.  It was due in part to this success, that helped the artistic and un-hindered creative expression of the film industry for the next whole decade to come.  Bonnie and Clyde is the quintisential American story, from the characters it portrayed to the real life  story of it’s inception and it’s success.

“Obsessed with the 60’s as the 30’s.” – Ashley