Best Seller

March 15, 2013

bestsellerThe main pleasure of Best Seller comes from watching two of Hollywood’s best actors play off against each other in weird and wonderful ways. James Woods plays a longtime hit man who’s hatching a bizarre plot. Brian Dennehy plays a cop who is also an author, turning his experiences into books a la Joseph Wambaugh. He’s currently suffering from writer’s block and looking for a story to tell.

Woods is about to give him one. He’s murdered a long list of “liabilities” for a stupendously wealthy corporate criminal (Paul Shenar). Now Woods wants to bring down Shenar’s empire, and he knows where all the bodies are buried. He approaches Dennehy with a proposal: Woods will give him the crime story of the century. All Dennehy has to do is get it down right, and maybe humanize Woods in the process.

So the two of them forge a dubious partnership; Dennehy, in particular, doesn’t know whether to believe any of this or not. Now, this story is already eccentric—not your usual cops and robbers. But the screenwriter, Larry Cohen, has even more up his sleeve. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Cohen is an original and maverick talent who puts his quirky mark on everything from horror films (It’s Alive) to biographies (The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover).

Although Best Seller contains the requisite guns blasting and cops running down darkened side streets, Cohen and director John Flynn are really fashioning a character study. The hit man and the cop are trapped in this improbable relationship, which keeps getting weirder as Woods becomes more and more insistent on the two of them becoming friends.

The cold-blooded killer turns out to be a guy who just wants some brotherly love. He presents Dennehy with an engraved watch, takes him home to meet his parents, and flashes some jealousy at Dennehy’s publisher (Victoria Tennant).

The film does a sufficient job of fulfilling the thriller plot while embroidering it with these oddball touches, although the big climax is somewhat wanting, I think.

But the two actors make it work. Woods, who was Oscar-nominated last year for Salvador and just won an Emmy for the TV-movie Promise, is simply one of the most exciting actors going. Here he easily slides from cool menace to hurt boyishness.

Dennehy is the monument-sized fellow from Cocoon and FX, and his girth plays well off Woods’ lean shiftiness. Dennehy plays the straight man role, but this actor is so authentic that he gives it considerable presence.

It’s truly a left-field movie, unpredictable and odd. But there are sequences in it that really reach a high, such as the bar scene in which Woods roams through the room, hitting on a woman, provoking a fitstfight, and testing his pain threshold by burning himself with a cigarette. Best Seller certainly goes its own way.

First published in the Herald, September 1987

The filmography of Larry Cohen: a great Hollywood subject in itself. I can’t say I remember this movie well, but from the sound of it, somebody could easily do a remake today and make it work.

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The Boost

July 31, 2012

The Boost is worth catching only for yet another nervy portrait turned in by James Woods, the hyperactive star (and critical darling) of Salvador and Best Seller. Woods has created one of his marvelously overheated characters, a born salesman who gets his shot at the big time only to blow it.

Woods has become so good at this that his work in The Boost is almost redundant; he’s enacted this hustling, big-dream lowlife enough times before. Still, it’s a performance with some truly corrosive moments, shot through with Woods’s unsparing, unglamorous honesty.

He plays a New York City salesman who hasn’t quite found his niche yet, although he and his wife (Sean Young, from No Way Out) love each other deeply, no matter what (as they are all too fond of reminding each other). He’s the kind of guy who will invariably spill coffee on his white shirt moments before going into an important job interview. His ship appears to come in when an L.A. executive (Steven Hill) recruits him to come out west and sell high-priced real estate.

Suddenly he’s providing tax shelters hand over fist, and the money’s flowing in. He buys himself a little airplane—nothing outrageous, just a prop job—and he buys his wife a car she saw in a James Bond movie. This is living at Southern California speed, and our hero gets high by breathing in the fumes of money. He gets charged by walking into a party full of Hawaiian shirts and Italian suits: “The discretionary spending power at this party is enormous!” he crows.

This guy has a tendency to pitch himself toward the edge, which is just where he finds himself when the bottom drops out of the market. He and his wife take solace in cocaine, which provides the quicksand for a final descent.

The Boost weakens when it gets into the drug territory, as the cocaine becomes the focus of all the couple’s problems, whereas it is clear from the beginning that Woods’ character is dangerously self-destructive.

The movie has deeper problems, too, like a melodramatic way of lurching forward. Daryl Ponicsan’s script telegraphs disasters; when the pregnant wife tipsily motions toward “A little stairway down to the beach,” you know perfectly well she’s about to tumble down the steps and lose the baby.

Harold Becker, who guided James Woods’ breakthrough role in The Onion Field, directs Woods and Young well, but the downward spiral of their lives takes on a deadening inevitability. After a while, it’s tough to make that compelling, and, despite Woods’ work, The Boost can’t get it done.

First published in the Herald, January 6, 1989

Now, as then, best known as a production marked by some briefly intense feeling between Woods and Young and weird fallout in the aftermath. It was based on a book by Ben Stein.


Cop

July 12, 2012

You can see why James Woods would be attracted to the lead role in Cop, a new police thriller. His character, a volatile big-city cop, is both an intelligent, sensitive family man and a nervy, hair-trigger obsessive. The role fits right into Woods’ gallery of unclassifiables, from the killer in The Onion Field to the buzzsaw reporter in Salvador to the perverse thug in Best Seller.

Woods is never a dull actor, which means there’s always something to watch in Cop. But the movie is a strange, unsuccessful mélange of different styles. For a while, it appears to be a provocative character study of a cop on the edge, similar to Clint Eastwood’s Tightrope, wherein Woods is curiously attracted to a serial-murder case involving innocent girls.

Then the film veers off into an odd look at man-woman relations, as Woods engages the help of a feminist poet (Lesley Ann Warren) with some predictable clashes in sensibility. And then some of the movie is black comedy, as when Woods picks up the companion of a hood he’s just shot in the street; she looks down at the corpse and asks, “Is what’s-his-name dead?” just before Woods takes her home to spend the night.

None of it ever gets in gear. The tone of the film seems to shift from scene to scene, as though writer-director James B. Harris (who also produced the movie with Woods) were trying out different, awkward styles. Harris, who made his niche in film history by producing three of Stanley Kubrick’s earliest pictures (The Killing, Paths of Glory, Lolita), has had a fitful career as a director, and Cop does nothing to advance it.

Every time Harris starts to touch on a potentially interesting subject, the film suddenly shifts back into cop-movie cliché (the by-the-book police captain growls to Woods, “If you go to the media with this, I’ll crucify you!”).

The performers seem uncertain, too. What to make of Warren’s poet, who goes from defensiveness to giggles within a few moments? (Check out her wonderfully blowsy performance in HBO’s recent Baja California instead.) Charles Durning and Charles (“Hill Street Blues”) Haid, both looking more rotund than ever, are fellow cops, but both are sketchily drawn.

Woods’ electric presence—the sharp shoulders, the lean, haunted face, the breathless jabber—can carry a film, but can’t make it comprehensible. Cop may be guilty of relying too much on its star to piece things together. Woods is good, but he can’t do it all himself.

First published in the Herald, April 10, 1988

I don’t remember the movie, but this was in the period when Lesley Ann Warren was finding her post-ingenue career very fruitful. Same for Charles Durning, of course.


Salvador

March 15, 2012

Everywhere he goes, journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) is met by old friends with a recurring salutation: “Boyle? I thought you were dead.”

It’s a suitable greeting. Boyle, an actual photojournalist whose experiences inspired Salvador, is an addictive, out-of-control personality who is clearly running on empty. As the film begins, he’s hit rock bottom in San Francisco, as his wife leaves him and his press card is revoked.

Going on instincts, Boyle figures that the place to be is where the action is: El Salvador (the film is set in 1980-81). Seeking some glimpse of personal and professional redemption, Boyle heads south. He can’t afford the air fare, so he drives to Central America with a pal, a boozy disc jockey named Dr. Rock (James Belushi, shrewdly used for audience identification and comic relief).

As they ingest various controlled substances, the film starts to look like a version of one of Hunter S. Thompson’s milder escapades. But once in El Salvador, things heat up: Boyle and the doctor are taken prisoner and nearly shot, until they find a sympathetic general.

Then Boyle locates an old girlfriend and goes after the story. It’s a nightmare; the right-wing officials are perpetrating atrocities everywhere, and the leftist rebels are hiding in the hills. While taking communion in church with his girlfriend, Boyle watches an anti-government archbishop get shot dead. Boyle and a fellow photographer (John Savage) explore a dump site of human corpses.

Finally, a sympathetic American (Cynthia Gibb) and two nuns are murdered. There is little doubt that, although the film carefully acknowledges the fictionalization of most of the characters, we are viewing versions of the news stories of the time. This is a film that minces neither words nor actions in its denouncement of the horror of that time, including the American government’s involvement.

Heady stuff, considering that most films today are falling all over themselves to toe the popular line (see Top Gun for a real cheerleading rave-up). The director of Salvador, Scarface writer Oliver Stone, broadly caricatures most of the U.S. government flunkies—they even wear their sweaters tied around their necks, a sure sign of moral instability.

Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay with Boyle, allows some ambiguity—in the end, the leftists are seen to adopt the same brutal tactics as the fascists, and the American ambassador (Michael Murphy) is allowed humanity. But most of the time, Stone’s style is cruel, angry, and slanted, and at one point the film stops altogether so Boyle can assert that he really does love his country. All of which, perhaps, weakens the film as a work of art, while at the same time making Salvador the most sheerly alive movie I’ve seen this year.

Salvador hurtles along at a slashing pace. It’s completely tapped into the energy of Boyle (given a brilliant performance by James Woods, always fun to watch but never better than here). The film spins and whirls, sometimes threatening to go as out of control as its protagonist. Salvador may be controversial, so much so that no major studio would pick it up for U.S. distribution, but it’s also intoxicating. It’s a good swift kick right where American moviemaking needs it.

First published in the Herald, April 1986

It’s easy to criticize Oliver Stone, but if you remember the rah-rah feeling of the Top Gun era, you will always be a little grateful for this furious diatribe, which landed like a gob of expectorant in the middle of the punchbowl. Woods is absolutely in the groove here, and Stone would release Platoon a few months later, launching his feverish run of big projects.


Once Upon a Time in America

January 18, 2012

Because Once Upon a Time in America has been in various stages of planning for the last dozen years or so, a little history seems in order.

The Italian director Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood—A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly—made a mint during the 1960s. When Leone got American backing in 1968 to do another Western, he seized the opportunity, and made a film that is, in many ways, the ultimate Western: Once Upon a Time in the West. The film shared the breathtaking cinematic invention of the other three Westerns, but it was a resounding flop—a situation that was not helped (as it never is) when Paramount Pictures lopped a half-hour or so out of the movie’s three-hour running time.

The screenplay for a crime movie called Once Upon a Time in America was written soon after that, but it bounced around for years—Leone couldn’t find the financing. In that time—and while Leone remained oddly inactive as a director—the project assumed legendary proportions. Would Leone ever get the film made?

It finally happened a couple of years ago, and so titanic was the scope of the film that it was announced it would be released in two parts. Then the news took an all-too-familiar turn: studio philistines had the scissors out, and the film was gradually being pared down.

When it opened last week, the final American version was 150 minutes long, and Leone’s flashback structure no longer intact. A couple of weeks ago, the European cut debuted at the Cannes Film Festival at 227 minutes.

We may see that version someday, but right now, the short cut must stand on its own. And as it is, it’s a disappointment. In the first hour or so, as we watch a group of teenage friends flirting with crime and girls on the streets of New York, a beautiful spell is cast. Every detail in their lives seems oddly meaningful, and there’s a strong sense of camaraderie.

One of them goes to jail and emerges a few years later as Robert De Niro. As adults, the gang (also including James Woods, William Forsythe, and James Hayden) has set up a smooth speakeasy operation during the 1920s. We see them become involved in bigger criminal activities, which coincide with the disintegration of the friendship.

De Niro can’t come to terms with his childhood sweetheart (Elizabeth McGovern) and is unable to consummate their relationship except through violence. He seems to be equally out of touch with the world around him—and wrongly regards the growing ambitions of his best friend Woods as a peculiarity rather than a warning.

The film ends in 1968, as an aged De Niro—in an evocative reversal of the revenge motif that spurred the plot of Once Upon a Time in the West—refuses to take vengeance on someone who betrayed him. By this time, we’re aware that some pretty substantial chunks have been taken from the film. There is clearly a story that more involved the Treat Williams character, but that plot seems to have been discarded.

The promise of the early scenes is not fulfilled—their detail and richness does not have counterpoint in the later adult scenes. The two-and-a-half hours of the movie sped by, but were ultimately not satisfying. I wanted more.

First published in the Herald, June 5, 1984

The longer cut eventually came around, and what a vast improvement it was. But at the risk of sounding heretical, I have to say I’ve never truly felt strongly for Once Upon a Time in America, and it feels as though something at its very conceptual center is wrong, or at least severely flawed, despite all the impressive movie-making around it (and in the way that some film classics are blissfully well-cast, this one has a group of actors who remain stubbornly hard to get close to, De Niro included). I have to will myself to really get behind the movie, which I don’t want to do.