Embracing the Melodrama #40: Bugsy (dir by Barry Levinson)


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Let’s continue to embrace the melodrama with the 1991 best picture nominee Bugsy.

Gangster Benjamin Siegel (Warren Beatty) may be known as Bugsy but nobody dares call him that to his face.  Siegel may be best known for his quick temper and his willingness to murder anyone who gets in his way, but Ben insists that he’s not as crazy as everyone considers him to be.  Instead, Ben knows that he’s a very special person, a visionary businessman whose business just happens to be organized crime.  Along with his childhood friends Lucky Luciano (Bill Graham) and Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley), Siegel is one of the founders of the modern American crime syndicate.  Unlike his more practical-minded partners, Siegel revels in being a public figure.  Bugsy examines how Siegel became a celebrity gangster and how that celebrity eventually led to his downfall.

As the film opens, Luciano and Lansky send Siegel out to Los Angeles, specifically to look after their west coast business operations.  Before Siegel leaves, he is specifically told to keep a low profile.  So, of course, as soon as Siegel arrives in Los Angeles, he starts hanging out with actor George Raft (Joe Mantegna) and having a very public affair with actress Virginia Hill (Annette Bening).  Siegel quickly falls in love with the glamour and glitz of Hollywood and starts to think of himself as being a movie star.  When he’s not working with violent gangster Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) to control the Los Angeles underworld, Siegel is attending film premieres and even shooting a Hollywood screen test.  Back in New York, Luciano and Lansky can only watch as their childhood friend goes out of his way to defy their instructions and become the most famous gangster in America.

Eventually, Siegel goes on a gambling trip to Nevada and comes up with an idea that is destined to change America forever.  With funding from Lansky and Luciano, Siegel begins construction on the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.  However, Siegel’s plans are so extravagant and, in many ways, impractical that the budget soon soars out of control.  Not helping matters is the fact that Virginia is embezzling money from the casino’s budget.  Even after Siegel finds out, he can’t bring himself to be angry at her.  He understand that he and Virginia are essentially cut from the same cloth.

However, back in New York, Luciano grows more and more frustrated with Siegel’s wasteful ways and Lansky comes to realize that he can only protect his friend for so long…

Bugsy is a big, extravagant movie that tries to be a few too many things at once.  Over the course of two and a half hours, it attempts to be a love story, a biopic, a classic gangster film, an allegory for the American dream, a history lesson, a period piece, and finally, a metaphor for the act of filmmaking itself.  (When Siegel complains that Luciano and Lansky don’t understand why the Flamingo has to be huge, it’s hard not to feel that he’s meant to be a stand in for every director who has ever had his budget cut by a meddling studio executive.)  When a film tries to be so many different things all at once, you can’t be surprised when the end result is a little uneven.  Bugsy starts out slowly but gradually picks up speed and the final part of the movie is everything that one could hope for from an epic gangster film.

The film works best as a character study of a man who, in the best American tradition, attempts to reinvent himself by moving out west.  Back in New York, Ben is known as a cold-blooded and dangerous killer.  However, once he arrives in Los Angeles, Ben attempts to recreate himself as a celebrity and then as a visionary.  For him, the Flamingo is about more than money.  The Flamingo is about being remembered for something other than his nickname.  The Flamingo is his way to escape from his past.  However, as Bugsy makes clear, the past can be ignored but it never goes away.

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Embracing the Melodrama #39: True Colors (dir by Herbert Ross)


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For the past 9 days, I’ve been posting chronological reviews of 54 of the most (and least) memorable melodramas ever filmed.  I started with a film from 1916 and yesterday, I completed the 80s.  Today, we start in on the 90s with the 1991 political drama True Colors.

True Colors tells the story of two ambitious law students.  Tim Gerritty (James Spader) is a wealthy idealist who wants to work at the Justice Department so he can uncover and prosecute political corruption.  His roommate and eventual best friend is Peter Burton (John Cusack).  Although Peter initially lies about his background, it’s eventually revealed that he comes from a poor family and the result of growing up in poverty has left Peter with an obsessive desire for revenge on everyone who has ever looked down on him.  And how is Peter planning on getting that revenge?  By marrying the daughter of Sen. James Stiles (Richard Widmark) and eventually running for a seat in the U.S. House.  Despite the fact that Tim happens to be in love with Sen. Stiles’s daughter as well, he still supports his friend Peter and even agrees to be his best man.  However, as Peter gets closer and closer to achieving his goals, Tim starts to reconsider their friendship….

There’s a scene about halfway through True Colors, in which Peter Burton attempts to blackmail Sen. Stiles into supporting his political career.  Stiles agrees but then angrily adds, “God help you when the people find out.  They always do, you know.”  I was naturally waiting for Peter to come up with a properly sarcastic response but instead, Peter simply looks down at the ground, properly chastened.  It’s a jarringly false note and, unfortunately, everything that comes after this scene feels equally false.  The film, which starts out as such a strong portrait of what happens with friendship comes into conflict with ambition, ends up turning into a painfully predictable political diatribe, the type of thing that makes the portrait of politics in The Adjustment Bureau seem subtle and nuanced by comparison.  When Tim decided to betray Peter, it should be a moment full of moral ambiguity.  Instead, we’re expected to ignore their long friendship and just be happy that Tim is willing to do the right thing and protect the integrity of the American political process.

And, who knows?  Maybe that’s the way people viewed politics back in the early 90s.  But for audiences today, it all feels really naive and simplistic.

But, if you can manage to look past the film’s weak’s script, you can enjoy the acting.  John Cusack is wonderfully intense as Peter, making the character compelling even when the screenplay lets him down.  Watching him in True Colors is like watching the performance that he should have given in The Butler.  James Spader is sympathetic as Tim and, like Cusack, his performance almost allows him to overcome a script that doesn’t seem to realize that Tim is essentially a self-righteous jerk.  And finally, there’s Mandy Patikin who has a lot of fun playing the local crime boss who sponsors Peter’s career and who, in one memorable (if out-of-place ) scene beats up a shark that’s jumped up on the desk of his yacht.

Much like High Stakes, True Colors is one of those obscure films that occasionally pops up on cable, usually late at night and usually serving as filler between showings of better-known films.  Keep an eye out for it, if just for the chance to enjoy the performances.

Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “Transformers : Age Of Extinction”


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You can accuse Michael Bay of many things — overblown spectacle, formulaic hackery, using CGI as a massive crutch, general lack of anything resembling original vision — but false advertising ins’t among them : when you go see a Bay-directed flick, particularly a Bay-directed Transfomers flick, you know exactly  what you’re in for.

Oh, sure, his latest — Transformers : Age Of Extinction — alters the basic cosmetic trappings somewhat, most notably by banishing Shia LaBeouf to whatever hell for dead careers Megan Fox was earlier castigated to in favor of proven “action hero” star Mark Wahlberg, and yeah, Stanley Tucci is about the only major holdover (as far as human beings go) from previous entries in this series (look for more newcomers in the form of Kelsey Grammer and Nicola Peltz as Wahlberg’s daughter), but this is no reboot, by any stretch.

For one thing, the story continues directly on from the previous efforts, with the Transformers having been “driven underground,” so to speak, thanks to a government witch-hunt until no less than Optimus Prime himself is discovered and “resurrected” by Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager (there’s a focus-group-tested name if I’ve ever heard one) character, who —

Oh, fuck it. Does this even matter? Does even the most hard-core fan of this franchise — and that’s precisely what it is, a franchise — care what the plots of these films are about? If so, you have to feel a sort of pity for them, because Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (who was supposed to be the “next big thing” once upon a time for a few minutes there) clearly don’t. Every single “slow” or “quiet” scene is obviously just set-up to carry us into the next big CGI set piece, so we won’t waste our time here with a terribly detailed breakdown of the story. Sound fair?

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All in all, Transformers : Age Of Extinction is all about getting the job done, slapping the finished product up on the screen, and opening up those cash register drawers. In that respect — and that one only — you’ve gotta say “mission accomplished” here. This movie is making money hand over fist and evidently the public’s appetite for more and more robo-carnage is proving to be flat-out insatiable. We apparently love this shit.

The question I have is — who’s “we”? Like the ever-ephemeral “they” of “well, they say you should — ” and “they say it’s not good for you to —” fame, the target audience for these films eludes me. I don’t like ’em. Nobody I know likes ’em. Nobody whose reviews I read online likes ’em. Nobody anywhere seems to like ’em.

And yet there it is — an 87% CinemaScore rating and another sequel already germinating somewhere in the pipeline. How, exactly, does this happen?

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The short answer is — I don’t know. There’s obviously an appreciative audience for these things out there somewhere, but I can’t figure out where it is, beyond perhaps in junior high schoolyards. That’s not enough to explain the phenomenon, though. I know it’s purely anecdotal, but when I went to see this film, the theater had maybe 30 or 40 people in it, and the crowd remained silent throughout. No clapping and cheering. No gasping in awe. No chuckles at the limp one-liners. And yet it wasn’t a rapturous, devotional silence these folks were in the midst of — it was just a kind of “blah” sense of resignation. We were here. This was happening. Everything, apparently, was as it should be. Until the end credits rolled, and we all left to do whatever it is we were  supposed to do next.

And maybe that’s the genius and/or malevolence of what Bay and company have come up with here in a nutshell : Tranfromers movies, for all their empty-hearted and empty-headed spectacle, aren’t huge pop culture events anymore. But a lot of us — myself included — keep going to them because they’re supposed to be. And we’re supposed to be there for them. It’s almost like a kind of Orwellian mass conditioning going on : we’re told this is a big deal and, lemmings that we are, we don’t want to miss out on that. Final score : Michael Bay and Paramount Pictures 1, hope for humanity 0.

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Pessimistic? Sure. But is there any reason not to be? A family of four left the theater at exactly the same time I did and their car was parked right next to mine. We followed the same route for a few blocks (I wasn’t purposely tailing them, I promise!) — until they pulled into a McDonald’s. And that pretty much says it all right there.