In Retrospect – Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

The following is a Bite Sized Review I’ve written for Tom at Digital Shortbread. There can’t be many of you who hasn’t checked out what is one of the very best sites out there for movie reviews of all shapes and sizes. Tom’s site has come on leaps and bounds and I’m honoured to have been asked to contribute. Hope you enjoy this appreciation of the 80’s action comedy classic Beverly Hills Cop, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary.

It may seem difficult to believe to anyone under the age of 30, but once upon a time Eddie Murphy was the biggest movie star on the planet. Murphy may have torched his reputation with the likes of Norbit and Meet Dave, but during the 1980s he was seriously hot shit and none more so than in Beverly Hills Cop.

Beverly Hills Cop - the 80s at its near-best

Beverly Hills Cop – the 80s at its near-best

In one of those ‘what if?’ parallel universes that Hollywood seems to excel at (think Frank Sinatra being first choice for Dirty Harry), the project was originally due to star Mickey Rourke (that would have been… interesting) and then Sylvester Stallone, who pulled out two weeks before shooting was due to start. Murphy was drafted in at the 11th hour by legendary producing duo Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer for his first leading role and the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part of wise cracking maverick Detroit detective Axel Foley, who heads west to the freak show that is Beverly Hills against the instructions of his hard-ass boss (played by Gil Hill) to investigate the death of his friend. His snooping not only rubs up against oily art dealer Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff) but also the Beverly Hills Police Department, specifically grizzled cop Taggart (John Ashton), his wide-eyed partner Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and Lieutenant Bogomil (Ronny Cox).

Eddie Murphy at the top of his game in Beverly Hills Cop

Eddie Murphy at the top of his game in Beverly Hills Cop

The alchemy that Murphy and director Martin Brest conjure up out of a well-worn fish-out-of-water premise is just as irresistible 30 years on. Murphy simply owns the film and it’s testament to his chops as a performer that the movie can get away with switching from broad comedy to drama in the blink of an eye. Murphy’s trademark laugh is in full effect, as is his ability to maintain a straight face while spinning a line to whatever lackey stands in his way.

Beverly Hills Cop was among the first movies in which the soundtrack was as popular as the film itself and anyone who appreciates uplifting 80s music (and who doesn’t?) will be hard pressed not to smile when The Heat Is On kicks in. Let’s also not forget the talismanic Harold Faltermeyer’s synth-tastic score that helps glue the movie together.

Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) gets under the skin of Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and Taggart (John Ashton) in Beverly Hills Cop

Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) gets under the skin of Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and Taggart (John Ashton) in Beverly Hills Cop

This isn’t just Murphy’s film, of course. Reinhold gives a warm performance as the naive Rosewood that perfectly complements Ashton’s grumbling turn as Taggart, while Bronson Pinchot is great as extravagant art gallery employee Serge. Also, keep an eye out for Damon Wayans in his debut role as a camp hotel employee.

On the negative side, the film has one of the worst stunt doubles ever. Check out 1h 4m in when Foley throws Maitland’s stony-faced goon (played by Breaking Bad‘s Jonathan Banks) over a buffet table; it’s almost laughable.

Finally folks, I’ve always been left wondering whether a banana in the tailpipe would actually stop a car from driving properly. If anybody can put me out of my misery on that one I’d be grateful.

Blogathon Relay: The 10 Most Influential Directors Of All Time

The 10 Most Influential Directors Of All Time

One of the more pleasant surprises I’ve had recently was to have received the baton from the lovely Ruth at FlixChatter for the 10 Most Influential Directors of All Time Blogathon relay.

The Blogathon was the brainchild of John at Hichcock’s World. It’s a brilliant idea and John sums it up nicely: “I have compiled a list of 10 directors I consider to be extremely influential. I will name another blogger to take over. That blogger, in their own article, will go through my list and choose one they feel doesn’t belong, make a case for why that director doesn’t fit, and then bring out a replacement. After making a case for why that director is a better choice, they will pass the baton onto another blogger. That third blogger will repeat the process before choosing another one to take over, and so on.”

The baton has so far been passed to the following:

Girl Meets Cinema
And So It Begins…
Dell On Movies
Two Dollar Cinema
A Fistful Of Films
The Cinematic Spectacle
FlixChatter (Thanks for the banner logo Ruth!)

The original list had plenty of incredible directors on it, but as the baton has been handed down the list has become pretty damned impressive:

The 10 Most Influential Directors Of All Time

Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, Georges Méliès, Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick

Ruth’s addition to the list was Billy Wilder and her justification was thus: “I’ve recently seen one of Wilder’s best, The Apartment, and I could see why his films are so beloved. He imbued such wit in his films, a dose of cynical humor. He also has a way with actors, having directed no less than 14 actors to Oscar-nominated performances. He’s also a versatile writer/director, as he excelled in numerous genres: drama, noir, comedy as well as war films. He’s one of those directors whose work I still need to see more of, but even from the few that I’ve seen, it’s easy to see how Mr Wilder belongs in this list.”

So, Who’s Out?

Jean Luc Goddard

Jean-Luc Godard

Man, this was an almost impossible decision. Godard’s still making movies aged 83 and there’s no denying the influence of his work. Breathless remains a defining work of the French New Wave and his 1964 film Bande à part was stolen by Tarantino for the name of his production company. The more I think about it, the less I’m sure, but compared to the others on this list I feel Godard’s influence has slipped and, as such, he doesn’t quite make it. Sorry Jean-Luc, but I suspect you’d feel that lists like this are way too bourgeois anyway.

Now, Who’s In?

John Ford

John Ford

Reflecting on his masterpiece Citizen Kane, Orson Welles was asked who influenced what is still regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Welles’ reply was simple: “The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” He had reputedly watched Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach more than 40 times in preparation for his debut feature and he wasn’t the only one to have been drawn to the work of one of the most influential directors of all time.

An encounter with Ford proved to have a massive impact on a 15-year-old Steven Spielberg, who subsequently said of the great man: “Ford’s in my mind when I make a lot of my pictures.” Watch Saving Private Ryan‘s devastating D-Day landings sequence and War Horse and you’ll see Ford’s stamp front and centre.

Likewise, Martin Scorsese has cited The Searchers as one of his favourite films. Speaking about the film in the Hollywood Reporter, Scorsese said: “In truly great films – the ones that people need to make, the ones that start speaking through them, the ones that keep moving into territory that is more and more unfathomable and uncomfortable – nothing’s ever simple or neatly resolved. You’re left with a mystery. In this case, the mystery of a man who spends 10 years of his life searching for someone, realises his goal, brings her back and then walks away. Only an artist as great as John Ford would dare to end a film on such a note.”

The list goes on. Ingmar Bergman cited Ford as “the best director in the world”, while Alfred Hitchcock declared that a “John Ford film was a visual gratification”.

From the earliest days of film, through to the invention of sound and the introduction of colour, Ford remained a cinematic pioneer. Although best regarded for his westerns, he also made another masterpiece that defined a nation – The Grapes Of Wrath; while his incredible World War Two documentaries The Battle Of Midway and December 7th remain quintessential examples of the craft. For all this alone, John Ford should be regarded as The Great American Director.


 

Well, that’s me done, so now the torch passes to… Fernando at Committed to Celluloid. Good luck Fernando; you’re gonna need it!

Four Frames – The Natural (1984)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Barry Levinson’s hagiographic baseball epic The Natural.

Of all the films made about the sport of baseball, plenty have struck out, while only a handful have truly knocked it out of the park. None, however, can compare to The Natural.

It’s unsurprising that a sport so revered by its innumerous followers should provide the backdrop to a picture whose central character is seemingly touched by the divine.

The Natural

Determined to become “the best there ever was” in baseball, the rise to greatness of gifted 19-year-old farm boy Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford, aged 47 at the time of release) is brutally cut short by a maniacal femme fatale dressed head-to-toe in black (Barbara Hershey), who lures him to her hotel room before shooting him.

Sixteen years later, Roy joins the dead-end New York Knights as a “middle-aged rookie” and becomes an overnight sensation when he literally knocks the cover off the ball, a feat lent extra drama when a thunderstorm breaks out as the ball is struck.

The Natural

His belated ascent to baseball deity is threatened when he again allows himself to succumb to the wrong woman, this time in the form of the duplicitous and manipulative Memo (Kim Basinger). However, redemption presents itself when his childhood sweetheart Iris (Glenn Close) re-enters his life.

Director Barry Levinson’s sophomore picture incurred the wrath of many by jettisoning the downbeat ending of Bernard Malamud’s source novel in favour of a wholly triumphant final reel.

The Natural

It’s the crucial play-off game and a debilitated Roy steps up to the plate knowing the Knights’ whole season rests on his shoulders. Cometh the hour, cometh the man; he sends one final, glorious home run crashing into the stadium lights, exploding them in a shower of sparks that light up his lap of honour in front of an enraptured crowd – all played out in slow-motion as if time itself is in awe.

Shameless and implausible it may be, but for a genre that so repeatedly wallows in melodrama, it remains an iconic moment in sports cinema. All the ingredients are there; from Randy Newman’s superheroic score, to Caleb Deschanel’s breathtaking cinematography, which imbues each frame with a warm and nostalgic beauty.

The Natural

The film takes Arthurian legend (Roy’s Excalibur-esque bat Wonderboy, fashioned from a tree split in two by lightning) and Homer’s The Odyssey and fashions its own mythos out of the mix. It also lathers on the religious sub-text, most strikingly during a key moment when Iris, dressed all in white and stood in the stands watching Roy play, is bathed in an angelic glow courtesy of Deschanel’s astonishing use of lighting.

As hagiographic as it is towards Hobbs – and, in turn, Redford – The Natural perfectly captures the joy of witnessing the sort of greatness that comes along only once-in-a-lifetime.

Sound And Vision – The Best Uses Of Songs In Movies

Since its birth more than a century ago, cinema has used music to heighten and manipulate our emotions.

Before the invention of sound, everything from a simple piano to a full-blown orchestra was employed by silent movies to make us smile, tug the heartstrings or set the pulse racing.

This kinship between sound and vision has continued to this day and, when done right, can leave a lasting impression and elevate a film in the eyes and ears of the viewer.

The thought struck me again during a recent viewing of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, specifically the scene in which Greta Gerwig’s titular protagonist dances giddily through the streets of New York as David Bowie’s Modern Love plays over the soundtrack. It’s a joyful confluence of moving picture and an 80’s classic that, more than anything else in the film, has stayed with me.

There are far too many memorable examples of movie scenes that remain stuck in my head because of the way the director has used a song to enhance the action on screen. Here are just a handful of my picks – as ever I’d love to know:

What are your favourite movie scenes set to a great song?

Goodfellas (1990)
Layla (Piano Exit) by Derek And The Dominos

Martin Scorsese has long been a master of the soundtrack, none more so than in his 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas. The film is chock full of classic music overlayed over striking visuals; however, the scene that always sticks in my mind is when dead bodies start showing up across the city, be they in a car, a refuse truck or the back of a meat lorry. Regarded as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most definitive love songs, Scorsese’s inspired use of Derek And The Dominos’ Layla (Piano Exit) instead gives the scene an elegiac tone as we know this marks the beginning of the end for wiseguys Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci).

Easy Rider (1969)
Born To Be Wild by Steppenwolf

And low, the New Hollywood was born. Although released a year earlier, Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild will forever be joined at the hip with Easy Rider, such is the impact the film had. It’s impossible to think of another song that could be used in its place as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s drug-smuggling bikers take to the road to get to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Just as Fonda’s decision to dispose of his watch marked a turning point in cinema, that iconic opening drum beat and insanely catchy guitar riff was the perfect soundtrack.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Stuck In The Middle With You by Stealers Wheel

Another director synonymous for using the ‘needle drop’ is Quentin Tarantino; so much so in fact that for his debut feature Reservoir Dogs, the fictional K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies is as integral a character in the film as Mr White et al. Call it unfortunate timing for poor old Officer Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz), but when Stealers Wheel’s appropriately titled Stuck In The Middle With You takes to the airwaves, it provides the psychopathic Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) with the musical spur he needs to perform some unwanted ear surgery. There are numerous other great songs used to superb effect by Tarantino throughout his career, but this remains the most potent example.

Boogie Nights (1997)
Jessie’s Girl by Rick Springfield

Once the porn star’s porn star, Dirk Diggler’s (Mark Wahlberg) desperate collapse into drug addiction reaches its sad nadir in this mesmerising scene, one of the finest of Paul Thomas Anderson’s astonishing career. Dirk, Reed Rothchild (John C Reilly) and their pal Todd’s (Thomas Jane) misguided attempt to sell drug dealer Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina) baking soda instead of cocaine predictably goes awry. As Jackson dances to Rick Springfield’s uplifting Jessie’s Girl, the folly of their plan gradually dawns on an increasingly jittery Dirk and the unbearable tension builds with every firecracker dropped by Jackson’s mute friend. Anyone who says Wahlberg can’t act just needs to watch how he gets lost in the song before strung-out paranoia and self-loathing seeps into his eyes – it’s a masterclass in subtle character shifts. Molina, meanwhile, is spot-on as always with a genuinely unnerving performance as the loathsome dealer.

Trainspotting (1996)
Born Slippy.NUX by Underworld

Danny Boyle is among a rare breed of directors who understand how and where to use dance music in their films without it sounding naff. He had demonstrated his keen understanding of the form by inventively switching between slow motion and speeded up footage to the penetrating sound of Leftfield’s title track in his debut film Shallow Grave. In his adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s cult novel, Boyle laid a little-known b-side by the then equally little-known Underworld over the film’s closing scene. Played quietly in the background at first, the tune slowly builds to a pulse-quickening crescendo as Ewan McGregor’s Renton steals off with his friends’ loot and vows to choose life over heroin.

The Big Lebowski (1998)
Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition

It’s easy to forget just how integral music is to the Coens’ oeuvre. From O Brother, Where Art Thou? to their latest Inside Llewyn Davis, their use of music is as carefully thought out as their storyboarded visuals. Arguably their most memorable needle-drop scene is the surreal ‘Gutterballs’ dream sequence from The Big Lebowski. Set to the psychedelic Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In), a wide-eyed Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) love of bowling is indulged as he rents a pair of shoes from Saddam Hussein, teaches Julianne Moore’s Nordic-clad Maude Lebowski how to bowl and then becomes the ball as he ‘rolls’ through the spread legs of dancing girls in swimsuits. The Dude does, indeed, abide.

Four Frames – Trading Places (1983)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from John Landis’ comedy classic Trading Places.

It’s a pity it took the global financial crisis for politicians to wake up to the lessons espoused in Trading Places.

The legacy of John Landis’ 1983 classic screwball comedy is such that it inspired the so-called ‘Eddie Murphy rule’ contained within Obama’s 2010 Wall Street reform to stamp out the sort of shady insider trading depicted in the movie.

Trading Places

Sadly, it’s pretty much the only positive thing Murphy’s name has been attached to for many years, although back in the early 80s both he and fellow Saturday Night Live alumnus Dan Ackroyd were at the top of their game.

Murphy is superb as wise-cracking street hustler Billy Ray Valentine, who is lifted out of the gutter by super-rich schemers Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (Don Ameche) and unwittingly trades places with pampered commodities executive Louis Winthorpe III (a career-best turn by Ackroyd) to satisfy a bet over nature vs nurture.

Trading Places

Winthorpe affirms Randolph’s suspicion that he would “take to crime like a fish to water” if stripped of everything he holds dear by infiltrating the Duke’s Christmas party dressed as Santa Claus to frame Valentine, whom he holds responsible for his plight. When that backfires he’s left with nothing but a whisky bottle and a gun.

Landis earlier emphasises just how far Winthorpe has fallen (and makes a sly observation of how the poor might as well not exist in the eyes of the super-rich) by having him stand outside a restaurant getting pissed on by rain and dolefully looking in as Valentine hits it off at a business dinner.

Trading Places

Valentine, meanwhile, sees the Duke’s true colours when he overhears them gleefully discussing their “scientific experiment” and their illegal plans to corner the frozen concentrated orange juice market.

Perceiving that “the best way you hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people”, Valentine and Winthorpe team up to hit the Duke’s where it hurts.

Trading Places

Not for nothing is the film set in Philadelphia – the birthplace of the US Constitution where the idealism of equality and opportunity for all is thrown into stark relief by the opening credits which cut between the lowly 99% and super-rich as the city starts another day.

Just as in the comedies of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, Trading Places has an old fashioned charm and a resonant political and societal message etched into each frame.

It also just goes to show how little has changed when a 30-year-old satirical comedy lampooning the unfettered capitalism and rampant hubris of Reagan-era big business feels as timely now as it did then.