Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

"I'm a fucking police officer. I can't steal cars no more."
(Well that's good)

As a na├»ve young person in love with all things Eddie Murphy (yes, I was addicted to the oh so raunchy naughty of Delirious too) I was oblivious to how patently absurd that aforementioned line is and just how ludicrous it would be for Axel Foley to pass a criminal justice background check and actually become a police officer after stealing vehicles. But perhaps in some precincts they let things slide. Today I wonder if they just might. According to this film they did in 1984 anyway.

It's funny life. One moment you can be on top of the world and in the next virtually forgotten. Once upon a time actor Eddie Murphy was all the rage amongst my childhood peers. Then we grew up. Perhaps Eddie Murphy did too. Maybe that was the problem. His childlike exuberance is what made characters like Donkey work so spectacularly in the Shrek series. So for a period of time Eddie Murphy hot off the heels of his run on Saturday Night Live (1980-1984) could do virtually no wrong. Anything he touched was box office gold. Today I couldn't tell you what films he has been making or is making. I have no idea.

As a young man though Eddie Murphy was very much apart of my formative years. His first film Walter Hill's 48 Hrs. (1982), Jon Landis' Trading Places (1983) and yes, Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and to a lesser degree, The Golden Child (1986) and Coming To America (1988), saw him riding high atop a succession of hit films. We simply couldn't get enough of Mr. Murphy.

But like all good things, it just ended. It ended for me anyway.

A reevaluation of this featured film here at Cinematic Wonders reveals the mind boggling question why it was ever such a hit. The lasting impression must rest solely and squarely on the shoulders of the Axel Foley character and not much else.

Also fascinating about Beverly Hills Cop is that with Murphy it spawned something of a popular franchise for a time a la Superman with Christopher Reeves or Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. It captured the moment and the attention of the world.

Director Martin Brest was at the helm and apart from the notable George Burns-helmed Going In Style (1979), Beverly Hills Cop was a breakout hit for Brest. It was the only film of the three film franchise he would direct. Tony Scott would direct the sequel Beverly Hills Cop II and John Landis would re-team with Murphy to direct Beverly Hills Cop III.

Brest would follow with the fantastically timed action comedy Midnight Run (1988) and the acclaimed Scent Of A Woman (1992) with Al Pachino. For Scent Of A Woman Brest was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director by the Academy Awards. He did however win a Golden Globe for Best Picture Drama. Meet Joe Back (1998) would follow and the disastrous Jennifer Lopez/ Ben Affleck affair led Gigli (2003) would come after that. Gigli saw Brest try his hand at writing as well as direction. It ended badly. Critics destroyed the film and Brest disappeared from behind the camera never to be seen again.

Funny Hollywood. But for one fascinating period for both Brest and Murphy the two shined with Murphy bringing to life Axel Foley and the film sporting a colorful 1980s pop soundtrack spearheaded by Harold Faltermeyer. George Michael's I Want Your Sex, Glen Frey's The Heat Is On and The Pointer Sisters' Neutron Dance seemed to be memorable signatures of the film's energy. The list of great ones goes on and all were perfectly placed to appropriately date this film squarely in 1984.

The film is loaded with cameos including Damon Wayans, Bronson Pinchot (potentially my favorite thing about the film), Paul Reiser and even Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul).

What I've come to realize looking back upon Beverly Hills Cop is that it's loose and breezy (Murphy is charming and giggles and chuckles essentially playing himself) and is generally well executed and paced by Brest and Murphy but not particularly terrific. The script is often weak, a generally preposterous law enforcement film, saved by the performances. But ultimately I was in awe of Murphy at the time and it all worked (then). Today, it's easy to see that Beverly Hills Cop is not that great and mostly a Murphy vehicle because people like me thought he was a real classic, a character and he was. We were somehow hypnotized by the Murphy laugh and charm, but Beverly Hills Cop is not that wonderful at all. In fact it's a little hard to believe I loved this film once upon a time. How will I feel about Trading Places and 48 Hrs. I wonder? This writer plans to find out.

But despite defying criminal justice standards at nearly every turn this film managed a franchise. It was huge! Timing is everything I guess. And wow, that Eddie Murphy was something special. He sells this picture. Look at the images. It's even visually uninteresting in nearly every way. It seems appropriate to land here at Cinematic Wonders because I wonder how on Earth this was as big as it was. It can best be described as mass popular entertainment but not good cinema.

Let's just call this dramedy a nice practice run for Brest's superlative Midnight Run.

Beverly Hills Cop. Director: Martin Brest. Writer: Daniel Petrie/ Danilo Bach.
Grade: C-

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Awakenings (1990)

"How kind is it to give life only to take it away again?"
"It's given and taken away from all of us."
"Why doesn't that comfort me?"

How fitting and applicable those aforementioned words (from a wonderful script by Steven Zaillian) are to life given the unexpected and untimely passing of actress and director Penny Marshall (1943-2018) on December 17, the director of this wonderful film Awakenings (1990).

This post had been prepared before her passing, but it seemed appropriate to publish it out of respect and love for this woman's work.

As a kid I grew up on a steady diet of Gilligan's Island (1964-1967), Happy Days (1974-1984) and many others. Laverne And Shirley (1976-1983; 178 episodes; created by her brother Garry Marshall), a Happy Days spin-off, was another of those television phenomenon that culturally indoctrinated me in which Marshall starred. I'm not sure I ever loved the show, but I watched it regularly just the same. I was still somehow riveted by the antics of Laverne and Shirley (a la I Love Lucy) and the vast array of supporting characters from Carmine Ragusa to Michael McKean's Lenny Kosnowski and David Lander's Andrew Squiggy Squiggman. You still laugh just thinking about them.

So it was a rather pleasant revelation to see actress Penny Marshall move to directing films with Big (1988), further launching the career of Tom Hanks and then next two of my favorite films of the 1990s, Awakenings (1990) and A League Of Their Own (1992). These were wonderful pictures and entertaining films that seemed to capture Marshall's voice for a time, one of the few female artists behind the camera that has now gone silent.

For Awakenings, Marshall put away the laughs instead relating to more affecting matters of the human heart and spirit. Marshall was so adept, as she was in her sitcom, at unearthing real humanity. It can't be denied she unabashedly pulls at the heartstrings in this one in exploring that depth of emotion that can be awakened in all of us.

In 1978, Marshall appeared in the Pilot episode for the career launching turn of Robin Williams' Mork on Mork & Mindy (1978-1992; another Happy Days spin-off). How funny the two would reunite twelve years later in the midst of blossoming careers.

I wanted to sit and watch Awakenings again as a fan of both Marshall and Williams' work during that period. Sure Robert DeNiro was good. Penelope Ann Miller was terrific. Julie Kavner, the voice of Marge Simpson (another series in which Marshall appeared), flawless. Max Von Sydow and Peter Stormare even guest. But for me it was always Williams' film in the role of Dr. Malcolm Sayer, based upon a memoir by Dr. Oliver Sacks, at the direction of Marshall, and seeing it again reminds me how much I miss his work. More recent fare like Boulevard (2014) and One Hour Photo (2002) were good but Awakenings was one of his ten best. I just never tire of his understated performance in this film. There is something so relative for me about Williams' gentile nature, his kindness, his sweetness, the quiet dignity here that I recognize and connect with from within myself.

This seemingly kindler, gentler institutional alternative to Milos Forman's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975) aside, the powerful Awakenings is a wonderfully sweet and portrayed character study about a man also in need of awakening and connection as much as his patients.

For me it was Williams with Marshall that make Awakenings so wonderful and worth returning to even as the Blu-Ray has appeared in an unfortunately bare bones form, time and again.

As noted earlier I miss Robin Williams and the boy in me who loved Laverne And Shirley and the man in me who loved her films will dearly miss Marshall too.

If anything Williams, Marshall and their film remind us its never too late to awaken, wake up, and find the joys of life now more than ever.

Director: Penny Marshall. Writer: Steven Zaillian.

Grade: A

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

"We cannot lose Los Angeles."
"One thing is clear, the world is at war."

Perhaps Cowboys And Aliens (2011), released the same year, was a bit too close for comfort, because South African director Jonathan Liebesman's Battle: Los Angeles (2011) easily should have been named Soldiers And Aliens. Neither film is required viewing for genre fans. Both are rather dumb and simple.

Funny enough, I pulled this science fiction war drama off the shelves in the midst of the NLCS between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Milwaukee Brewers (2018). Los Angeles would lose their battle in the 2018 World Series to the juggernaut that was the Boston Red Sox. But I digress.

As someone pretty disgusted by all things liberal Hollywood witnessing a battle take place there would be just fine with me. Alright not really. Seriously Battle: Los Angeles (2011) is pure sci-fi action escapism. It isn't more than an alien invasion movie dropped into the kind of shaky camera work performed so much more effectively in films like Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down (2001). Only you actually cared about the soldiers amidst that film's modern warfare.

For fans of the war genre and aliens Battle: Los Angeles delivers the kind of action and impact that was often missing from the character drama that permeated the executive produced Stephen Spielberg TNT drama Falling Skies (2011-2015). Still the latter is entirely absent here.

This is nothing but an adrenaline rush of modern warfare against aliens. Having said that, this is all a rather empty affair. The bio-mechanical creatures are intriguing enough to genre fans, but this film is a hollow shell, a poorly penned excuse for the kind of alien invasion science fiction that made South African director Neil Blomkamp's District 9 (2009) so damn fascinating and the far more intriguing science fiction of the two South African filmmakers.

Liebesman creates a gritty lived in atmosphere with a healthy respect for a diverse, patriotic American United States Marine Corps. He also doesn't bog down the picture in unnecessary CGI effects. There's a sense of authenticity about the event unlike the CGI heavy pictures he would direct that would follow like Wrath Of The Titans (2012). Battle: Los Angeles if anything looks great even if empty.

Battle: Los Angeles is a steady, sturdy invasion picture with a lot of flair and excitement. Alien boots are on the ground along with American combat soldiers but Liebesman but barely attempts to put a face to the characters as they are essentially unidentifiable. This is B movie fare without much heart or anything memorable to make it worth a return. Its biggest deficiency would be the camera work and editing. It's all too shaky and quickly edited respectively to fully embrace. It can all be a bit of a blur albeit an exciting blur.

This is serviceable, mindless, action fare done well, but certainly nothing too especially special or wondrous about it at all. Bad writing and lack of character make this a mostly forgettable battle.

Battle: Los Angeles. Director: Jonathan Liebesman. Writer: Chris Bertolini.
Grade: D

Crimson Tide (1995)

"I n the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself." H ollywood simply cannot help itself when it comes to expressing its lib...