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.



September 8, 2011
Suspects and waitstaff, in Clue

The strangest thing about Clue is that it took this long to film it. Parker Brothers’ board game, featuring colorful characters and a whodunit set-up, has been a favorite for decades.

You know the rules: Someone killed Mr. Boddy in the big mansion (12 rooms). You must determine the murderer, the weapon, and the room in which Mr. Boddy was killed. Was it Miss Scarlett with the lead pipe in the ballroom? Or Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the conservatory?

The film provides a “Ten Little Indians” framework for these memorable characters. Suspects are called to a mansion by a mysterious letter, and arrive not knowing the purpose of the visit. This murderer’s row consists of: Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn), Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull), Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), and Miss Scarlett (Lesley Ann Warren).

A few new characters have been added for the film. Most important are a butler (Tim Curry) and a French maid (Colleen Camp).

Everybody sits down to a civilized dinner, and slowly, clues begin to emerge—but no no, that’s about all, in fairness, I can tell you. Except that there is a murder—well, of course there’s a murder, or there wouldn’t be any picture. The suspects spends the rest of their time trying to figure out whodunit.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, be it known that Clue is very much a comedy, and very much in the spirit of the board game. And good thing it is a comedy, too, otherwise it would be all too obvious how flimsily the whodunit has been constructed—some of the blind alleys and red herrings are cheats.

But that was almost necessary because of the film’s gimmick: Clue has three different endings, attached to different prints of the film, and an alternate two-minute conclusion is offered in each. So, as the ads put it, whodunit depends on where you see it.

This means that a certain amount of fudging has to go on, so these differing possibilities could be left open.

All these endings were screened for the press, and I can tell you only that one ending is notably superior to the others; all three are explained so hurriedly that I’m not exactly sure who did what to whom, or why. That seems like an inexcusable failing in a murder mystery.

And yet, Clue provides enough sleight-of-hand along the way to distract you from this shakiness. It’s full of exchanges such as, “But who would’ve wanted to kill the cook?”—”Yeah, the dinner wasn’t that bad.”

Most of these goofy lines, which are largely sprung from linguistic misunderstanding, are delivered with sparkle by the funny cast. Everyone has good moments; Madeline Kahn has a few demented speeches (the best of which takes place during one of the endings, so you might not see it) that remind you of how underused she is in movies today.

It’s the first film directed by Jonathan Lynn, who also wrote the screenplay. Lynn has a nice macabre sense of humor, and a penchant for handling slapstick. The only section he misjudges is the early portion of the denouement, which goes on forever as the butler takes the cast on a repeat performance of the evening’s events.

All in all, a painless holiday entertainment—who could resist the chance to hole up for 90 minutes with these familiar characters? My only question is this: When they release the film on videotape, which ending will it have? All three? Or will you have to take your chances, sight unseen? Ah, Clue requires deduction on so many levels….

First published in the Herald, December 13, 1985

I hear the Clue remake, courtesy Gore Verbinski, has just been canceled. This means Battleship and Candyland are going to have to stand as next year’s big board game tentpole blockbusters, unless Ridley Scott gets his Monopoly picture in gear. (That’s all real info, by the way.) I had a good time with this movie, in part because Colleen Camp, Lesley Ann Warren, and Madeline Kahn are very appealing in it. The multiple endings were somehow connected to the very brief craze for interactive movies, which thankfully didn’t last long; surely the gimmick hurt Clue‘s box office, because audiences get uneasy if they feel they’re not seeing the whole movie, somehow.

Choose Me

August 12, 2011

Lesley Ann Warren, with "radio" and "telephone"

In the opening shot of Choose Me, characters wander into a street scene and start dancing to the sounds of the funky music on the soundtrack. Highly unrealistic, and it serves as a warning: You either sway to the peculiar rhythms of this idiosyncratic film, or you will be left behind.

I’ve seen Choose Me with two separate audiences, and the reaction was quite different with each. One crowd was with the film every step of the way, knowing when to laugh and when to stop laughing. The other audiences seemed puzzled by the whole thing, almost as if it couldn’t see where anything was leading.

The latter reaction is understandable, because Choose Me is a comedy and a romance and a film noir and even a musical, all rolled up into one mysterious package. But getting to the heart of that mystery is an intoxicating journey. It’s true; you never know quite know where you stand with this movie, as though it were deliberately keeping you off balance. But if felt I was in capable hands throughout, and never for a moment feared that the film was heading for a fall.

It has the logic of a screwball comedy, in which strangers meet, sparks are kindled, and everyone becomes accidentally and inextricably involved with everyone else. Beneath the comic structure, Choose Me simmers with urgent passion, so that its laughs have meaning.

The film considers the various romantic entanglements of: Dr. Nancy Love (Geneviève Bujold), a radio psychologist who counsels her callers about love but doesn’t know much about the subject; Eve (Lesley Ann Warren), owner of a bar and one of Love’s frequent callers; Mickey (Keith Carradine), a habitual liar who walked into Eve’s bar looking for the previous owner but fell in love with the current proprietor; Pearl (Rae Dawn Chong), barside poet; and Zack Antoine (Patrick Bauchau), self-styled gangster, Pearl’s husband, and Eve’s lover.

Each relationship builds on the other ones, in a grid of coincidence and cross-purpose. Orchestrating all this is writer-director Alan Rudolph, who is probably tired of being called a protégé of Robert Altman. But he was, and he’s since made Welcome to L.A., Remember My Name, Endangered Species, and others. Rudolph’s films have always taken chances, but this film takes even more. It also pays off on more.

With cinematographer Jan Kiesser, and with a very low budget, Rudolph has created a sensual look for the movie (and, with the Teddy Pendergrass songs, a very sexy sound, too). Much of the action takes place at night, and the characters resemble nighthawks on the prowl, scouring the lonely edges of Los Angeles for a little companionship.

The people are special, and the fact that they are played by misfits and almost-stars adds to this. Carradine, who was in Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A., continues to carve his own niche in the recent cinema, always seeming to turn up in small, personal projects. Warren, queen of the TV-movie in the early ’70s, rings true, even when saying things like, “I don’t own any man—and no man owns me,” one of the many lines that seem inspired by old movie dialogue.

Bujold, who doesn’t work all that often and never quite became the big star she could have been, is superb as the talk-show host. It’s easy to satirize this particular kind of pop figure, and the film does get funny material out of it, but there is much subtlety in Bujold’s performance. It’s a wonderful part, and Bujold, as the omnipresent goddess of the airwaves, becomes the glue that holds the many enticing aspects of this film together.

First published in the Herald, August 24, 1984

This was kind of an important independent film, although it doesn’t get a lot of credit for that. It was a gigantic hit in Seattle, a city that has cozied up to Rudolph’s films in general (and he to Seattle, having shot Trouble in Mind here a couple of years later and keeping a house hereabouts). Choose Me  has a real appreciation for people, without ever losing its odd, stylized snap.