Beverly Hills Cop II

February 28, 2020

Beverly-hills-cop-twoThe sequel to the monster hit Beverly Hills Cop didn’t have to be great to make a tidy piece of money. If ever a bonanza were guaranteed, this is it.

As it happens, Beverly Hills Cop II isn’t great. But it’s good enough to earn its inevitable megahit status honestly. There’s nothing unexpected here, no daring variation from the successful blueprint, but at least it’s a clever enough outing.

Much of the original cast is retained. Eddie Murphy plays Axel Foley, a Detroit cop who wings West again to aid his pals out in Los Angeles. This time, his policeman friend (Ronny Cox) gets seriously wounded during the investigation of a crime wave called the Alphabet killings. Foley and his cohorts (Judge Reinhold and John Ashton) are curtailed by an unsympathetic chief of police (Allen Garfield), so they decide to track down the bad guys on their own.

The trail leads to a sinister East German (Jurgen Prochnow), a flunkie (Dean Stockwell), and an Amazonian trigger woman (Brigitte Nielsen). It’s not giving anything away to reveal this: The movie’s more interested in the fun of the pursuit than in any mystery about who’s guilty.

And, well, it’s reasonably fun. Murphy gets to do more character business, adopting accents and attitudes, and he’s almost unerring in his comic sense. But, like the first film, there are some good laughs for the supporting players, too – from the bumbling chemistry of Reinhold and Ashton to the schtick of comedians Paul Reiser and Gilbert Gottfried.

As well-greased as the machinery is, and as much moolah as this film will make, it’s not an improvement over the original. Some of the looseness of the first film is drained off by director Tony (Top Gun) Scott’s relentlessly controlled frames. His style isn’t really appropriate to Murphy’s improvisational manner, and Eddie’s anarchy seems contained rather than liberated.

The nicest moments are those that have nothing to do with the plot: Murphy idly musing about the sex life of a turtle, some impromptu harmony on the music from The Dating Game, Reinhold’s curious emulation of Rambo – the latter is an inside joke, I guess, since Sylvester Stallone was at one time slated to play Murphy’s role in the original Cop, and Stallone’s wife, Brigitte Nielsen, is the villain here.

Every time the movie threatens to get too mechanical, Murphy steps in and confidently holds court.

First published in the Herald, May 21, 1987

It looks like another of those reviews that got lopped off for space at the end. But Murphy does hold court, without question. Of course the really controversial part of this review is my complaint about Tony Scott’s relentlessly controlled frames. As much as it amazes me, there are critics who feel that T-Scott is not only an underappreciated auteur but a kind of master, a claim which I will respectfully deny, and if I need to be disrespectful, I will. How this movie in particular gets defended I don’t know, but then I haven’t seen it since the press screening.

Eddie Murphy Raw

February 27, 2020

eddiemurphyrawFilm reviewers are commonly being called to task for giving away the funniest lines of a movie. Often, this is an accurate accusation, and it’s a complaint that’s also sometimes true of TV ads, which pack all of a film’s boffos within 30 seconds.

However, neither reviewers nor TV commercials are going to give away the best lines of Eddie Murphy Raw, the comedian’s new concert film. They can’t. Murphy’s familiar predilection for “blue” material precludes the opportunity to quote him in any context not contained within a brown-­paper bag.

His stand-up routine was taped at New York’s Felt Forum before an appreciative crowd. Murphy begins the show by acknowledging the flak he’s taken for his outrageous material, and recounting a disapproving phone call from a square Bill Cosby. Murphy’s imitations of Cosby and Richard Pryor are among the movie’s best bits.

Murphy quickly settles into the topic that will fill the greater portion of his routine: men and women. Or, more appropriately, boys and girls, since frankly Murphy’s appreciation of human relationships doesn’t seem to have advanced past the high-school level. He’s funny enough in describing sexual foibles, but his perspective is that of a brat; there’s no wisdom in his work.

When Pryor’s at his best in concert, he is scandalous and cutting too, but his cuts go deep. Murphy’s schoolboy pranks stay on the surface. However, past Murphy’s obsessions about alimony and the deceit of women (“All women have a skeleton in their closet – some women have a cemetery”), Murphy is often funny. A lot of this has to do with the fact that he is so physically gifted, his precise timing and range of expressions can make even subpar material amusing.

And too much of the material of “Raw” is mediocre. It’s well-directed by Robert Townsend, the director-comedian who scored such a hit with his low-budget Hollywood Shuffle, and Murphy the performer is in good shape. But the routine lacks the insight and bite of a comic who is really cooking.

The movie opens with a sketch purporting to show a prepubescent Murphy entertaining his family with a batch of off-color gags, most of them concerning various bodily functions. Since Murphy covers some of the same territory in his adult act, it might be suggested that he hasn’t exactly developed very far as an artist. Then again, when jokes about bodily functions have made you millions, it’s difficult to clean up your act.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

Murphy was riding high at the time, of course, although the thinness of the material here suggested the tank might be going dry.

Britannia Hospital

February 26, 2020

britanniahospitalI come home from the opening-day matinee of Britannia Hospital, open the paper, and am astounded by this picture of a guy in Boston who had his right hand amputated off his nerve-dead right arm and sewn on to the end of his left arm (his left hand having been lost in an accident). I immediately start flashing on some of the most absurd elements of Britannia Hospital, like the mad scientist (Graham Crowden) who sews up a human being out of a collection of body parts as a special presentation for Her Majesty’s visit to the hospital. At least it seemed absurd while I was watching the movie; now I can’t be quite so sure. And that would probably suit Lindsay Anderson and his scenarist, David Sherwin, just fine.

Anderson and Sherwin have Something to Say, and this kind of satire is nothing if not ambitious; the surprising thing is that so much of it is so madly enjoyable. Yes, the hospital exists as a great big metaphor for England today, but Anderson works the metaphor with such glee that the hospital starts to simmer with its own life, above and beyond the thematic concerns and political commentary of the filmmakers.

The events of the movie take place over one hectic day – the day the Queen is visiting the hospital to officially open the new research facility (it’s the place where the Frankensteinian experiments are underway). Just about every union servicing the hospital is striking over something or other; soon the picketers outside are joined by protesters calling for the release of the cannibalistic leader of an African nation, who is enjoying cushy private care in the private ward. The frenzy escalates when a terrorist bomb swells the ranks of t he incoming wounded. There’s also a mysterious video journalist (Malcolm McDowell) who is trying to get the scoop on the Frankenstein surgery, and winds up getting closer to the action than he expected. To top it all off, it looks like the entrance hallway isn’t going to get repainted in time for HRH ‘s visit.

A t the center of all this is the Britannia’s chief administrator, played by Leonard Rossiter. Rossiter is a brilliant actor – he was the jealous suitor Captain Quin in Barry Lyndon – but his character is one of the  things in Britannia Hospital that don’t quite come together; to some extent, Anderson asks us to take for granted this man’s all-consuming love for the hospital. (Maybe the character suffers by comparison to George C. Scott’s magnificent doctor in the Paddy Chayefsky Hospital, also a pretentious but enjoyable medical madness movie.) Still, Rossiter has some great scenes, especially the one in which he silkily strokes the head of the cooks’ union into unloading the Royal non-union food off the Royal non­-union trucks. The rest of the cast is uniformly good: Crowden is the ultimate god-like surgeon, blithely sticking a half a human brain into a Cuisinart and offering the resulting goo as a pre-operation aperitif; McDowell looks young and roguish again, as he becomes part of a scientific experiment of the kind that he barely avoided in a memorably horrific sequence in Anderson’s extraordinary O Lucky Man; Mark Hamill, oddly enough, is one of McDowell’s assistants; Alan Bates and Arthur Lowe are dying patients; Joan Plowright is a union representative with an awkward curtsey for the Queen; Gordon John Sinclair of Gregory’s Girl is a cook named Gregory.

Anderson lets his hand get a bit heavy toward the end; for instance, shots of the cops knocking the protesters about are accompanied by “God Save the Queen” ­although even this has a practical reason: the band is there for the new building opening, and they’re playing loud so HRH isn’t bothered by the sound of the riot going on. The somewhat Kubrickian ending, with Britannia bidding fair to rule the brain waves, may or may not be everyone’s cup of tea; I found it easy to make the final leap, because Anderson had me going with the film from its first few scenes. One warning: If you’re downstairs at the Harvard Exit watching The Meaning of Life and getting grossed out, don’t go upstairs to Britannia Hospital expecting things to be less stomach-turning; the latter film has some pretty gross stuff, too. But – it’s lyrically gross, you know?

First published in The Informer, April 1983

A big swing from Anderson, and “a bit” heavy-handed, for sure. Still, the world needs more movies like this. 

The Bear

February 25, 2020

bearThis may be the first movie in which animals are billed above humans in the opening credits. But that’s entirely appropriate. The stars of The Bear are two grizzlies, one little and one huge, while the human characters are definitely supporting actors.

The idea for The Bear originated about seven years ago, when French director Jean-Jacques Annaud came up with a very simple synopsis, which he gave to writer Gerard Brach: “A big solitary bear. An orphan bear cub. Two hunters in the forest. The animals’ point of view.” With a bit of fleshing out, that’s the movie he eventually made. As the film opens, a mother bear is rooting for honey when she is killed by a rock slide; her orphaned cub strikes out on his own. Meanwhile, an enormous male grizzly is shot and wounded by two hunters, who pursue. The little bear hooks up with the healing giant and follows him around like, well, like a bear cub. After some wildlife adventures, the two bears finally come face to face with the hunters and the drama plays itself out.

Annaud had made that fascinating epic about cave men, Quest for Fire, so he knew something about mounting an outdoor spectacular. But The Bear took a long time to develop, with years devoted to the selection and training of bears and a lengthy,  painstaking shooting process. Most of it was filmed in the Austrian Alps.

Annaud and the bears create some amazing moments. The bears are treated as actors, and they express emotions, or seem to, with remarkable dexterity. The little cub actually convinces you of his maturation. The movie’s like a live-action Bambi, except, of course, that bears are much cooler than deer.

How did they do all this? Apparently with good trainers, some puppets and dummies, a jot of patience, perhaps some luck. Annaud has reported waiting an entire day for a bear to yawn.

In one sequence, the cub is chased by a mountain lion, out onto a tree limb that overhangs a rushing river. The branch breaks, and the bear is taken for a ride down the stream, as the cougar follows along on the bank. It sounds natural, but how are animals “directed” in such a scene? They certainly give great performances.

One thing: The Bear was not made as a children’s movie. There is nothing sanitized about it. When bears and dogs and deer are wounded, by man or by each other, they bleed and sometimes die. (All simulated, as the film goes to pains to point out.)

All of this comes from Annaud’s rigorous devotion to the bears. He’s so aligned with the bears’ point of view that he even shows their dreams; dreams of honey, and slippery frogs, and loss. What else would bears dream about?

First published in the Herald, October 28, 1989

Bart the Bear starred, in one of his biggest performances. All of this is past, of course, as the new Call of the Wild movie shows the efficiency of simply computer-generating a dog to be the star. 

The Man from Snowy River

February 21, 2020

manfromsnowyPicture if you will a Thomas Hardy scenario set in the rugged country of South Australia; cast Kirk Douglas in a dual role as feuding twin brothers (give one a pegleg), throw in a mysterious black stallion to lead a group of wild horses across the countryside, and plug in a feminist undercurrent in the person of Kirk’s daughter. This is The Man from Snowy River, the latest big Australian release, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of this busy film.

It is directed by a fellow named George Miller – but wait, it isn’t that George Miller, not the Mad Max-Road Warrior George Miller. Oh, there’s some snazzy editing, and some high­powered Dolby sound effects, but this is not the work of the Max man. It is the work of a director who has a real flair for the dramatic – better make that melodramatic. I’m not going to give away the plot, because much of the fun of watching The Man from Snowy River is discovering all the various twists and turns; some of them are pretty wild, and director Miller milks them for all the worth – and frequently for more than they’re worth.

If the whole thing is overblown, it’s still nice to see some liveliness in a Western again. It’s also nice to see Kirk Douglas enjoying himself – he chews on a couple of lines as though he had been searching for them for the last twenty years. Also a must-mention: a mindblowing sequence with a horse and rider charging down the side of a hill that doesn’t seem to be too much less than a 90-degree cliff – it’s not a faked shot, either, because the trees growing out of the hill are practically parallel with it , as we can see when the horse rushes past. You gotta see this – it’s worth the price of admission.

First published in The Informer, November 1982

Big hit in Australia, but undoubtedly confusing for anybody trying to keep their George Millers straight. There was a 1988 sequel, and if I am not completely insane, it was pretty good, too.

Desert Bloom

February 20, 2020

desertbloomIf Desert Bloom were not quite so sure of its own importance, it might be a great movie. It’s still a good one, though, and well worth recommending even with its problems.

At its heart, it is a family drama, filtered through the nearsighted eyes of a 13-year-old girl, Rose (Annabeth Gish), who struggles through the winter of 1950-’51 in Las Vegas with her eternally perky mother (JoBeth Williams), two sisters, stepfather (Jon Voight), and beloved aunt (Ellen Barkin), who is visiting to secure a Nevada divorce, and maybe to secure a high-rolling sugar daddy.

Most of the struggles spring from the instability of the stepfather, a disturbed alcoholic veteran, whose erratic and sometimes violent behavior becomes worse as he tries to figure out what the government is doing in the wasteland north of town.

What they’re doing out there is setting up a bombing range where atomic weapons will be detonated. This proximity provides the domestic drama with a suitably humbling perspective, as the characters conduct their fragile human business with a cloud over their heads – in this case, a cloud shaped like a mushroom.

It also provides writer-director Eugene Corr many opportunities for gallows irony. Townspeople trill ecstatically about the fun of being part of history; Voight changes the name of his desert service station to “Atomic Gas”; Williams rouses the kids out of bed on the morning of the first blast with a cheery, “Rise and shine, it’s A-bomb time.”

Some of this humor seems uncomfortably patronizing to the characters in the film. Corr’s point may be that the government was not sufficiently informing the populace of the dangers involved, but his tone sometimes smacks of hindsight superiority.

This is all the more bothersome because so much of the film is beautifully written and acted, especially by Gish, Barkin, Jay Underwood (as Gish’s first love interest) and Allen Garfield, as a neighbor fearful of the bomb’s effects. Garfield immediately taps the audience’s identification, as he often does, in part because Voight’s character is so difficult and unsympathetic.

Voight’s performance dominates the film. The depth of his earnestness is astonishing, yet busy mannerisms crowd his character. He gets a few incredible moments, such as his pronouncement, after a spell in a detox hospital, that “From now on, I’m gonna be more easy-going,” while the cords in his neck stand out as tight as new rope, but he works so hard at being an actor that it detracts from the plight of his pathetic character. Gish’s unfussy raw talent is ultimately more moving.

Her scenes of growing up are lovely: the fun of schmoozing with the members of the Pink Pinky club, who paint only one fingernail with polish; the excitement of her first date, and the resulting terror of a falsie floating away across a swimming pool; the thrill of being fitted with a new dress by her racy aunt; the sadness after her Christmas gift is stonily unappreciated by her stepfather.

Desert Bloom, which premiered here earlier this year at the Seattle International Film Festival, was developed by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, which helps projects get off the ground that wouldn’t usually have much of a chance. However problematical the film may be, it’s a strong effort, and Redford’s group is to be commended for allowing the film to flower.

First published in the Herald, August 17, 1986

I still remember the mood of this film – which says something about it – and that Voight’s performance is sometimes scary in its intensity. This was Annabeth Gish’s first film. Sundance, as you could see, was still pretty new.

Bat 21

February 19, 2020

bat21Variety, the show-business bible, just reported that the busiest leading man over the last five years was none other than Gene Hackman (in a somewhat dubious tie with Steve Guttenberg).

Sure enough, Hackman seems to be turning nothing down; if he is no longer exactly bankable, he’s nevertheless an actor coveted by all the good directors. Bat 21 is the kind of movie an actor such as Hackman can gamble on. Hackman doesn’t have to worry about whether every film he makes is a box office bit, so he can afford to take a flier on a more difficult-to­-categorize film. He may well have been attracted to this film through the sheer technical challenge of playing the role.

That’s because for 90 percent of Bat 21, Hackman is alone, speaking what lines he has into a walkie-talkie.

He plays an Air Force colonel who has to eject during a mission over Viet Cong territory. Alone, in the jungle, he is located by a spotter pilot called Bird-dog (Danny Glover, of Lethal Weapon), who fixes his position but can’t call in helicopters to pick up Hackman until the area is secured.

So, in the course of three days of waiting, Hackman and Glover establish a friendship over the airwaves. Adding some suspense is an air strike, previously ordered by Hackman, which will obliterate the area in a matter of hours.

Everything about this situation is competently handled, although very little about it seems new. Glover’s commander (played by singer Jerry Reed, who is also the film’s executive producer) is a typical hard-barking military-man, and a gung-ho chopper pilot (David Marshall Grant) is strictly a movie creation.

Director Peter Markle (The Personals) does try to add little quirky touches around the edges, and wisely concentrates on the relationship between Hackman and Glover. Both actors are good, and Hackman is especially fine at portraying his character’s increasing sense of desperation (“You are gonna come and get me, right?” he whispers into the radio).

The movie’s main point, that Hackman discovers the hellishness of war only by being on the ground instead of in the air, comes across as heavy-handed.

Bat 21 (the title refers to Hackman’s code name) is based on a true story. It really happened to Col. Iceal Hambleton, the military expert and golf enthusiast played by Hackman.

There is an odd note sounded at the end of the movie: A postscript tells us that Hambleton now lives happily ever after. Nothing wrong with that, but the postscript says zilch about the tenacious spotter pilot who saved him. This is a peculiar, even insulting, omission, particularly after watching both men share equal time in the film for the previous two hours.

First published in the Herald, October 19, 1988

Not much of a review. I’m not sure where my concern about Hackman’s career came about, but I’m sure he was bankable enough even in 1988. Weird, for me at least, that I remember director Markle’s first film, The Personals, which was an indie in the time before the idea of “indie” had come together. He’s directed a few features and dozens of TV stuff since then. Life is getting long.