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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Starring Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, John Ashton, Ronny Cox, Steven Berkoff, Jonathan Banks

Directed by Martin Brest

Written by Daniel Petrie, Jr.

Beverly-Hills-Cop

I’ve been watching action movies for most of my life, probably because action and its various subgenres – Action-Adventure, Sci Fi/Fantasy Epic, Superhero – are the sort of movies my dad likes. I have vague memories of so many car chases, so many missions to Vietnam, so many roundhouse kicks to the face, that the filmographies of Norris, Seagal, and Van Damme all kind of blur together for me. I remember them, though, with nostalgic affection in disproportion to their probable worth as films. And as a result, I return to the action genre over and over again, looking for something I can just barely remember, that feeling I had as a kid watching action movies on TBS in the afternoon with my dad and my brother.

I include this preface to say that I have opinions about action movies, formed over 20+ years of knockout punches, broken tables, and cars that explode when you shoot them. Action often asks you to turn your brain off and just coast on adrenaline and sexy, sexy violence, but, as you might have gathered from my Skyfall review, I expect more from my entertainment. Speaking as someone who has watched Samurai Cop twice, I can say that my expectations aren’t exactly excessive or consistently applied, but they exist. I can’t turn my brain off, at least not all the way.

So, Beverly Hills Cop disappointed me. It’s an 80’s classic, Eddie Murphy’s first solo starring role after partnering with older white guys in the much more entertaining 48 Hours and Trading Places, and it went on to be a box office success and spin-off two sequels, the first of which I remember being kind of fun even though it lacked a cameo by Bronson Pinchot. Axel Foley is a street-smart Detroit cop trying to take down a powerful drug kingpin who murdered his friend, while teaching the suits in the Beverly Hills Police Department how to do real policework. The comedy bits are pretty good, and you probably got the theme song stuck in your head as soon as you read the title of this review. It’s one of those 80’s action movies that you either saw years ago and loved or have a vague awareness of but no intention of seeing.

I don’t think there’s much productive I can say about a thirty year old film I didn’t particularly like, and if you liked it, I don’t have a particular interest in changing your mind, so instead of talking about what was wrong with Beverly Hills Cop, I’m going to talk about action movies I do like, and why I like them better. It’s probably not completely fair to compare an action movie from 1984 to movies made years later, but that’s the nature of culture and narrative art. We learn from the mistakes of those who went before us. You, of course, may not have the same expectations or value the same things that I do in action films. That, of course, is fine. Feel free to give your own take in the comments.

A lot of cops we see in action movies would, in real life, be terrible police. Damn protocol, the president has been kidnapped by NINJAS, and all these RULES are just standing in the way. So they do things that would ordinarily get them fired or killed, causing massive property damage, and they get away with it, because the bad guy gets dead. We can forgive that sort of break from reality, if it’s done well. If it’s not done well, the “hero” winds up looking like an invincible jerk and the plot fails to have any real tension. Take another 80’s action movie, Lethal Weapon. Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs is the loose cannon to Murtaugh’s By the Book, but he’s really more than that. He’s not fearless of failure or death because he’s Just That Good; he is outright suicidal, and his partner, notably, is not okay with this. This is what makes Riggs interesting, as he and Murtaugh fight it out with each other, take insane risks, and are generally mauled by the plot. Lethal Weapon hasn’t aged as well as it might have, in some ways, but when Riggs and Murtaugh are captured toward the end of the film, it’s brutal and tense in a way that the same scene in Beverly Hills Cop couldn’t manage. Murtaugh and Riggs are allowed to feel pain and terror, which makes them much more interesting characters to watch.

While we’re on the subject of buddy cops, let’s talk about a more recent film: Rush Hour. Chris Tucker as Detective Carter clearly owes a great deal to Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley. They both insist they work better alone, they both talk fast to get out of trouble, they both engage in unsanctioned undercover work. In fact, Carter’s undercover sting at the beginning of Rush Hour is so thematically similar to Foley’s entrance into Beverly Hills Cop that I have to believe the writers did it deliberately. Carter has all of these Foley qualities, including thinking of himself as a great cop, but everyone else – his partner, his department, the FBI, Inspector Lee – all think he’s a self-serving jerk. Like in Lethal Weapon, this creates tension, both as the hyper-competent Lee deals with a glory-seeking partner who is crooked and cocky, and as Carter starts to figure out how to actually be the good cop he always believed he was by right. I know some people roll their eyes at the idea of expecting character development from action movies, but I think it’s what gives the good ones their punch. Not every action star has to grow as a person by the time he walks away from the explosion, but I do think making us care about the protagonists as people ups the stakes in a way that no amount of fight choreography and pyrotechnics can.

Really, I think that’s one of the things that makes Die Hard my favorite action movie. Other than being clever, well-written, and funny, influencing action movies for the next decade, and making Bruce Willis an action star, it’s great because of the character of John McClane. He’s a cop, sure, but otherwise he’s just a guy, who hates to fly and misses his wife after the divorce. The thing I think most subsequent films lost track of is the essential vulnerability of John McClane. He’s cavalier and badass when taunting the villain, but he’s also scared and tired and hurting and just wants to go home. Half the guys he kills are killed in a complete panic, and he spends most of the movie trying to get somebody to come help so he can hide. John McClane doesn’t want to be a hero! Heroes get dead, and John McClane doesn’t want to die. That’s what makes him heroic, and that’s what makes Die Hard great in a way that so many other action movies have tried and failed to match.

The appeal of violence as entertainment has diminished for me lately; violence and death feel much more real to me as an adult, I suppose. Action movies are, by their nature, full of violence, although that can certainly span a spectrum from the sparking blows of the Power Rangers to Django Unchained’s thousands of blood squibs in terms of the graphic nature of that violence. Good action movies find a way to deal with that violence in a way that doesn’t trivialize it. Tarantino movies are so cartoonishly violent that they can be interpreted as a meta-commentary on violence in film, while the violence in Saving Private Ryan or HBO series like Rome or Game of Thrones is gory and visceral on purpose, fully intending that the audience should feel squeamish and uncomfortable. Although it’s a TV series and not really in the same genre as the movies I’ve been discussing, I think Breaking Bad is a great example of non-trivialized violence. That show explodes into violence pretty regularly, and it can have, at times, thrilling action sequences. But the deaths in those scenes are grim, and felt by the victim, the killer, and the viewer. Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, and even hyper-masculine DEA agent Hank Schrader are not left unscathed by either the violence they do or the violence done to them by others. I’ve enjoyed my share of movies in which the heroes are called to dispatch mobs of faceless goons with gun and sword, but those types of stories have to work that much harder to get me invested in the action. Breaking Bad, when it chooses to be violent, is like an action movie in which I actually care about the people participating in the shootout, and that makes it more satisfying.

Beverly Hills Cop struggled to hold my attention largely because it lacked these qualities. I should point out that I think the problems are primarily the fault of the script, which just doesn’t demand much from its neophyte action star. The studio wanted to capitalize on Murphy’s popularity, and Murphy wanted to break into a new kind of role. The result is a weak film that takes few risks and offers its star no challenges. The opportunity was there to emphasize the personal nature of Foley’s quest for justice, or the challenges he faces trying to win over the predominantly white cops in Beverly Hills. They placed Foley in a hostile city, in which everyone from the police to the mayor opposes him, but the filmmakers never really let us feel him struggle. I guess in the end that’s what I expect from action movies. It’s not about the explosions, the gunplay, the obligatory romance subplot; action for me is about revealing character through struggle. At their best, action films give us heroes we cheer not because they killed someone evil, but because they faced evil, and danger, and death, and they won. That kind of film is worth leaving your brain turned on.

Buy Beverly Hills Cop on DVD, Blu-ray, or Amazon Instant.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods

I was introduced to Neil Gaiman by way of The Sandman in high school, and it opened up this whole other world of literature and media to me. I went from being purely classic rock and sword and sorcery to moody alternative, 80s post-punk, horror and dark fantasy literature, cult film and banned books. The repurposing of ancient myth and legend, the darkness and humor of that series, as well as Neverwhere and Stardust, changed everything for me, and opened me up to the wider world. I hope that I’ve written and read enough now that my Gaiman influence isn’t quite as blatant as it was back then, but he is still, obviously, foundational. And, as I found with this second reading of American Gods, still very much a pleasure to read.

The basic plot follows Shadow who, immediately after being released from prison, is dragged more or less against his will into a world of gods and monsters that overlays the more mundane world he left. Shadow has a job to do, but he’s not exactly sure what it is, and meanwhile grifter gods and unemployed magical beings are forming a conspiracy around him, his dead wife is warning him that a war is coming, and his television is offering to show him Lucille Ball’s tits. It’s a dark, fantastic story set against the grim realities of contemporary American life, while in the interludes, the entire history of humans and their gods on the North American continent unfolds, revealing the often gruesome depths beneath the surface of the tale.

The idea of ordinary people finding themselves a part of extraordinary events is a staple of fantasy literature, and has been a favorite of mine since Bruce Coville’s My Teacher is an Alien and Gordon R. Dickson’s The Dragon and the George. Something about being whisked away from an ordinary life to a fantastic world of alien conspiracies and dragon knights strongly appealed to my teenage self, who often wished, as adolescence wore on, that he would be abducted by space pirates. Gaiman’s stories, however, took this teenage fantasy and matured it, allowing me to see the darker side of losing everything one thought was true. For Shadow, like Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere, the magical world in which he finds himself upsets his sense of self and his view of the world, and puts him in terrible danger. Unlike Mayhew, however, his loss isn’t abrupt. Shadow has been in prison for five years. When he emerges, the world he thought he’d come back to simply isn’t there.

Shadow sort of holds our proxy in exploring the hidden, magical America revealed here. He goes where Wednesday tells him to go, and with few exceptions, does only what he is told to do. When he gets into trouble, which is often in this unfamiliar world, he needs rescuing, usually by his wife, Laura, who in undeath is capable of seemingly terrific violence. But this isn’t to say that Shadow is some kind of everyman character. He’s pretty far from it, in fact. Shadow’s greatest strength is his essential selfhood, which protects him and draws people to him. His apparent lack of agency is a defensive reaction to the loss of everything he knows, but he maintains a quiet strength and sense of decency that keeps your sympathy with him as he passes through scenes of wonder and horror. In the end, those essential qualities and the friends and allies he gathers along the way, from young hitchhikers to mad sun gods, are the power with which he faces the dramatic confrontation in the story’s climax.

This America, filled with gods and monsters, is beautiful, even at its most terrible. Some of the most striking sensory images come from nearly freezing to death, or the appalling effects of severe deprivation, or the kiss of Shadow’s dead wife after a cigarette. But there are other, more enchanting things as well, like the moonlit scene on the roof with Zorya Poluchnaya, or the strange vision of the world backstage. I’ve always appreciated Gaiman’s ability to make terror, horror, and strangeness beautiful. He creates a world that is strange and terrifying, and makes me want to live there. I remember wanting to step through a door and into London Below at the end of Neverwhere, or to find a Wall to cross like Tristan in Stardust. I wanted to believe in the Endless, and by the end of American Gods, I wanted to believe that if I looked closely enough, asked all the questions that Shadow didn’t, I could find the secret magic underlying the world. Gaiman’s writing makes me feel like I could touch magic, and I think that’s why it’s always been compelling to me. American Gods, even more than the others, makes magic gritty and real, something touchable if you just know the trick of it, like pulling a golden coin from thin air.

Shadow’s journey is mythic and contemporary in equal measure, and the characters he meets along the way, gods and mortals, are genuine and memorable. Gaiman’s imagery creates an immersive, magical world that I want to live in despite its terrors and quiet horrors. While I think Neverwhere might still be the secret world I hold the most affection for, American Gods feels richer and deeper, with so much to talk about in individual chapters and scenes that I found it hard to decide what to discuss for this review. The quiet magic of the Lakeside chapters or the ecstatic vision of Shadow’s vigil? The unexpected and brutal heroism of Laura or the charming, subtle villainy of Mr. Wednesday? What about the many interludes and what they reveal about the larger world of the novel? The story rewards close reading while also being just a pleasure to read. Through Shadow, Gaiman reveals the gods to us, the old and new magic, and the secrets rooted in the history of the land and its people. That’s why he remains one of my favorite writers, and why his influence lingers in my own writing, despite all the other books I’ve read since.

Buy American Gods from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

Starring Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Sixto Rodriguez

Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

Searching-For-Sugarman-poster1

I had two completely different reactions to Searching for Sugar Man. Let’s deal with them one at a time.

The last time a documentary made me feel so energized and happy was 2007’s King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Searching for Sugar Man doesn’t have that kind of clear narrative conflict, of course. There’s no antagonist, really, other than, say, record label executives, or apartheid. Conflict isn’t the point. The point is discovery and wonder, and I think that makes Searching for Sugar Man a better film.

I hadn’t heard of Rodriguez before, which I imagine was the case for a lot of Americans. By all accounts an exceptionally talented musician, Sixto Rodriguez made two unsuccessful albums in the 70s and then faded into obscurity, in America at least. Overseas, he actually found some success, particularly in South Africa. Although bootleg copies of his albums consistently sold out despite government censorship, that same censorship made news about Rodriguez difficult to come by. Without any news or new albums forthcoming, many concluded that he was dead, until a superfan and a music journalist teamed up to track down as much information as they could about their idol, and find out exactly why he dropped off the face of the Earth.

Rodriguez looms in silhouette throughout the documentary, despite his self-effacing manner and his apparent disappearance. He’s like an anti-celebrity, with his portrait sketched in by a cast of interesting personalities who know him personally or knew him professionally. Record producers and managers rave about his musical talent, and lament the fickle nature of the American market. Bricklayers and bartenders weigh in about his early shows, and his good-natured construction worker friend talks about his philosophy of life. His three daughters add life and color to the mystery man behind songs as “Sugar Man” and “Crucify Your Mind.” It’s a unique perspective: Rodriguez is humble, and from a humble background; his friends, old and new, are from Detroit’s working class. No music legends come forward to describe his impact on American music, and the producers and record label executives can only shrug and shake their heads at his lost opportunities. The heart of this story belongs to his friends, his fans, and his family, and the things they say are not only sweet, but often insightful. Focusing on these voices brings us closer to knowing the man who played with his back to the crowd than any number of music industry people ever could.

Documentary filmmaking is about making choices to shape the story you want to tell. An early line of inquiry in the film follows the money from all those hundreds of thousands of Rodriguez albums sold in South Africa, trying to see where it ultimately went, if not to Rodriguez himself. No one will admit to doing anything wrong, and eventually Clarence Avant, former chairman of MoTown Records, asks, defensively, “Do you want the money, or do you want Rodriguez?” The answer, of course, is Rodriguez. The speed with which they drop the question of money is a little startling. If there is an antagonist in this film, it’s the record labels, who managed to profit off of Rodriguez’s foreign success without him ever seeming to know about it. But I think the movie benefits from not following the money. Again, this isn’t a film about conflict or seeking justice or uncovering unethical behavior. It’s about discovery, and about bringing a man back from the dead for thousands of South Africans.

Malik Bendjelloul captures the enthusiasm of Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom as they chase down the story, and translates that energy of amateur sleuthing, of putting together clues, to the viewer, leading to a series of very satisfying revelations. The set ups are so well-executed that at the first glimpse of Rodriguez, I said “There he is!” Selected interviews conducted with fans of Rodriguez, both in South Africa and his old haunts in Chicago, create this exhilarating tension, a sense of importance and high stakes, leading to the moment of meeting one’s lifelong musical hero face to face. It’s a transcendent experience.

 

And yet…

 

By the end, I felt a little uneasy. We are told again and again how important Rodriguez is to South Africans, the impact his music had on a generation struggling with apartheid, and we are greeted by sweeping, gorgeous views of contemporary Cape Town. What we don’t see or hear about are black South Africans. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent that when Sugar says “South Africans”, he really means “white South Africans.” Footage of black South Africans during apartheid serve only to establish context for the white anti-apartheid student movement. One man explains that the consequences for speaking against apartheid could involve imprisonment for as many as three years; Mandela served twenty-seven. In concert footage, we see nothing but white faces. In fact, the only black voice we hear is Clarence Avant, an African-American, who is also the only person to suggest that Rodriguez’s lack of success in America might have had something to do with his race. Bendjelloul acknowledges this fact in an interview. Although he does say that someone told him Steve Biko was a Rodriguez fan, that second-hand rumor is as close as we get to a black South African perspective, and it is nowhere in the movie.

Maybe I had unreasonable expectations, and my unease isn’t the fault of the film. Obviously, if Rodriguez’s South African fans are white, most of the faces we see and voices we hear are going to be white. Interviews with black South Africans talking about how little they care about Rodriguez, underscoring the lingering effects of apartheid, would alter the story of the film in a big way. This is really a story about two South African fans whose obsession led them to track down everything they could about their favorite musician, up to and including the man himself. That they are white, and the rest of Rodriguez’s fans are white, isn’t part of that narrative. Still. I feel uneasy.

Ah, well. In spite of that, I enjoyed Searching for Sugar Man thoroughly. The film is amazingly well done, combining a music documentary celebrating the work of an unjustifiably obscure musician with the personal journey of two men chasing a legend. There is mystery, and detective work. There are surprising revelations, and brilliant discoveries. It’s a fantastic trip, full of humanity and triumph, and I left it feeling enriched.

I just wonder if I’d feel the same way if I wasn’t white.

Searching for Sugar Man is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon Instant. You can also purchase the soundtrack.

Roger Ebert (1942 – 2013)

Roger Ebert died on Thursday, April 4th. I don’t feel that I can adequately memorialize him better than others, who really knew him, have done. So today, instead of a review, have some links.

First, his obituary at the Sun-Times, where he reviewed movies for 46 years.

Outlaw Vern on Ebert’s love of movies – action, animation, horror – that other mainstream film critics often dismissed.

John Scalzi on Ebert as a writer, not just about movies but, especially later in his life, about everything else.

Roger Ebert at Salon.com: I do not fear death

My favorite review, about a movie that I loved as a teenager, is this review of Dead Poets Society.

And finally, Roger Ebert’s last review, at the Onion.

Sorry for not posting a review today. I’m going to put some extra spit and polish on the next one, and make sure it’s something worthwhile. I think what the loss of this great critic means to me is that I have to try that much harder to have thoughtful, worthwhile conversations about culture. We all have to try a little harder to fill the space he left behind, not just as a critic, but as a human being.

From the Salon article:

I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.