This Week in Geek (24/02-01/03/20)

"Accomplishments"

At home: With an Eddie Murphy career revival brewing, does Beverly Hills Cop still stand up? Surprisingly well, actually, give or take a couple of actors putting on gay voices for (ha!) comic effect. Murphy's Axel Foley is the Bugs Bunny of cops, a wiseass who can talk himself into and out of anything, a less macho and more humorous version of the "cop on the edge" trope, and while the crime plot he's in is pretty formulaic (right down to the really tedious gun fight climax), they don't overplay the fish out of water element of the Detroit cop in Beverly Hills. The posh, polite policemen who patrol the streets of the super-rich are naive compared to Axel, and there's a bit of a send-up there (and how weird is it to have Ronnie Cox in a movie NOT turn out to be a bad guy?), but it's mostly harmless fun. In fact, the movie smartly starts documentary style, with the real people of Detroit, to create a contrast with the movie and comedy shenanigans of the Californian material - Axel essentially pranking other cops and getting comedy types like Balky and Damon Wayans to do what he wants. The reality vs. fantasy aspect is subtle, maybe even under-exploited, but it's there. And what a fun soundtrack, almost every song a hit. The joke here is that the bad news is, they're all '80s hits, but I don't want to make it. While '80s music has been many a movie's downfall, Beverly Hills Cop's soundtrack and score actually works in its favor, a rare thing.

I thought Beverly Hills Cop II would have Axel Foley now working IN Beverly Hills, seeing as he made a lot of good friends there, but happily, he's still a Detroit cop who from time to time has to go to California for a posher adventure. If I say happily, it's that Detroit cast still has some juice in it, Axel's captain in particular (I don't think I like Paul Reiser in this series). And while he'll still get institutional opposition from higher ups in L.A., the friendships from the first movie hold, and he's even had a maverick-making effect on Rosewood, Taggert and Cox. It can't possibly be as fresh as the first film (and the soundtrack is more up and down in terms of quality), but the time saved on introductions is used to craft a less formulaic crime story. Indeed, it may be trying too hard and feels rather convoluted, but they do a rather good job of filling in what only looked like plot holes. Check out for baby Chris Rock in a bit part, a Hugh Hefner cameo, and Eddie Murphy calling Brigitte Nielsen a "big bitch" way too often (groan). BHC2 is directed by Tony Scott, so you know it looks gorgeous. About as good as the first one, a fun time with only a few creaky, dated moments.

Before Beverly Hills Cop(s), Eddie Murphy was in 48 Hrs., though it takes him forever to actually show up. This buddy cop movie has Nick Nolte as the cop on the edge and Murphy as a convict who agrees to help him get a cop killing duo in exchange for being out and about for, you guessed it, 48 hours. Murphy is the highlight, using his trickster persona to improvise his way out of trouble, most memorably in a country bar draped in Confederate flags. But Nolte is harder to take. It's as if you were watching The Odd Couple and Oscar randomly slung a racial epithet at Felix. Murphy brings a nice humanity to his role, but Nolte's is compromised and I don't buy the third act reconciliation because they went too far. But this is a really racist script (it's not great for women either) with a lot of ugly moments. There's just too much macho bullshit, the gun shots as loud as cannons, the bad guys are monsters, and they almost escape through the massive plot hole that is the necessary solo (plus press-ganged buddy) man hunt. At times we approach Noir film-making, but the testosterone gets in the way.

One Hour with You is a very silly marital comedy signed Ernst Lubitsch, with the great on-screen couple of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald who always seem to have such fun together. As a musical, it has fun, bubbly songs, and indeed, has a lot of rhyming dialog not accompanied by music, which you don't see very often. I find that kind of thing pleasant to the ear, and it creates a heightened reality where, you know what, even if adultery is involved, all CAN be forgiven at the end, because nothing is serious. Not that there's necessarily BEEN adultery. We're pre-Code and there's certainly a lot of lust openly going around, the furthest it goes is kissing another man's wife and - shockingly! - walking around with one's tie undone. Chevalier isn't as amusingly cartoony as Lubitsch would later allow him (in The Merry Widow, for example), but he's still quite amusing. And I mean, who would seriously pick Mitzi over Jeanette? As a comedy, it tickles despite the slower beat and it's over before you know it, and hopefully before you want it to be.

Before seeing his adaptation of Great Expectations, I'd only seen David Lean's gorgeous color films. Well, turns out he was adept at black and white cinematography, and one of the main reasons to recommend the 1946 version is its strong, atmospheric look. After all, there is something of the Gothic in this Dickens classic - the graveyard opening, the nasty escaped convict, the cobwebbed mansion where an old woman lets her uneaten wedding feast rot  - and Lean certainly (coughs) leans in that direction. This is one of the Dickens novels I am most familiar with, a melodrama built on ludicrous coincidences, but so filled with interesting ideas - the mystery benefactor, the girl bred to be a weapon to hurt men, heck, Lean even includes the judgemental cows - that you forgive the contrivances. If it has a weakness, it may be in the casting. Adult Valerie Hobson simply can't follow young Jean Simmons as Estrella, the latter a much more mysterious and dangerous creature. John Mills as the older Pip is, indeed, too old for the part, but he's acceptable. But hey, it's Alex Guinness' second role ever, and he would go on to work with Lean in all his best productions.

I've never read Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, but the 1935 adaptation makes me want to, which is perhaps the best compliment I can give it. The book is too big for a two-hour movie, and you can feel it when the action decides to skip ahead and cover the missing parts with on-screen text, but it doesn't skimp on what Dickens does best and we get a lot of nice characterization, memorable scenes enlivened by Dickens the Humorist, adding some lighter moments to rather dark subject matter, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, but also poignancy, and I fully admit the ending got to me. Ronald Coleman as Carton is incredibly good and worth the price of admission alone. You also get Basil Rathbone as an evil aristocrat, Blanche Yurka as a villainous revolutionary (a tale of two evils), and to my delighted surprise, Edna May Oliver doing a bit of action! Oh and you know, a staging of the taking of the Bastille, etc. It's got its epic qualities as well. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK

Not sure how Around the World in 80 Days won the Oscar for Best film of 1956 considering what else was nominated (and not even nominated), but it's a two-hour movie disguised as a three-hour epic, with longueurs only sometimes punctuated by fun cameos and lots of change of scenery. When it started with a talking head telling us how important Jules Verne's work was, with a long reuse of Méliès' From the Earth to the Moon, I thought uh-oh. But at three hours, might we have a definitive adaptation? No. While it's okay to use Verne's Five Days in a Balloon to make the journey more fantastical (it is NOT in THIS novel), we start with Fogg and Passepartout drifting over the French Alps and landing in... Spain?! The least they could have done is get the geography right. After that, the narrative gets back on track, and even some of the longer travelogue elements look like they were shot with a (then-unknown) Imax experience in mind. But while it has its moments and ends where it should, Around the World is adventure film as variety show, spending its time on dance numbers, scenery, and bull fights to give the audience a cultural tour of the planet. That's a fine if now dated idea, it's just unfortunate that it takes unbearably long breaks from the story to do so.

Let's be honest, Flaubert being the consummate stylist he is, no adaptation of Madame Bovary, especially if not in French, is going to do the work justice. That said, the 1949 version makes things difficult for itself by starting at Flaubert's trial for immoral writing. First, why do all the old adaptations feel the need to explain they are adaptations of great works in some way? It's clunky, but I guess they knew their audiences better than I. Second, by saying the book was scandalous, they're setting the audience up for disappointment, as the Hays Code restricts what movies of this era could show. Flaubert's defense in the case is that the book isn't so black and white and is actually quite ambiguous, but then the ambiguity is dispelled by his testimony (or self-serving narration) that basically interprets the work for us. It's adaptation as Cliff's Notes, kids. Eventually, the narration calms down and we can enjoy (if that's the word) the story of a woman who filled her head with romances and then found the real world wanting and started misbehaving. Jennifer Jones in the role is melodramatic where most of the people around her are playing it more realistically, pushing the portrayal to unhinged at times. Not sure that's a correct interpretation either. Watchable for sure and it has stronger moments (the breaking of the windows, Emma's final fate), but dumbed down to within an inch of its life. You do the adaptation, movie, and I'LL take care of the interpretation, thanks.

Best Believe I Watched Keanu 'n' Charlize

Like most everyone else, I thought Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was a triumph, and though her second film, The Bad Batch, is also a genre-bending slow burn set in a modern wasteland, it just doesn't achieve the same heights. As the indie version of Fury Road, it manages powerful cinematography and intriguing world-building, but Arlen, its Furiosa, is made inscrutable by Amirpour's now-trademark love of silence. She tells this story visually, but at the cost of understanding. I always felt like there was something just out of my grasp, whether it was the social commentary/shit metaphor and what point it was making, or the code-names most of the actors were billed as (Jason Momoa as Miami Man, Keanu Reeves as The Dream, etc.), or why the town is called Comfort, etc. Maybe it's all just color or maybe it's an allegory, but it keeps hinting it's the latter, if one could only figure out the decoder key. Of course, some audience members will tap out very early on at the gory cannibalism. This one is hard to digest, but at times it's also hard to stomach. Looks good and has a fun soundtrack, but you're left scratching your head wondering what the point was.

Alex Winter's follow-up to Anyone Can Quantum is Quantum is Calling, but it unfortunately isn't nearly as funny or clever as its predecessor. Though Paul Rudd has his role to play, this one is about members of the Reboot Star Trek cast, principally Zoe Saldana, having to figure out a quantum mystery with the help of sassy Stephen Hawking and the disembodied voice of Keanu Reeves. A cat, a box, I was happy to see my favorite quantum puzzle brought to life, but then the 11-minute short almost immediately went off in a different direction. That would be fine if the humor clicked as well as it did in the first short, but alas, I'm not quite as charmed by Saldana jumping to conclusions like '66 Batman, and it drives me absolutely crazy that the pre-taped actors and the ones on screen don't pronounce Schrödinger the same way. A couple of good jokes, but they are few and far between in the Quantum Realm.

In Dark Places, Charlize Theron plays a woman whose entire family was killed in a now-famous massacre back in 1985; her brother is serving a life sentence for the crime. Today, this broken person starts to piece things together, prodded by a club of True Crime aficionados and amateur detectives. And it's fine. Good performances, a complex mystery... But Dark Places doesn't know how to juggle the present and the past, to its detriment. While Theron's Libby Day is searching for answers, we go back to 1985 where it plays out, except we're omniscient in those moments, at the mercy of neither accounts, nor information discovered. The effect is that we know more than Libby, and then have to sit through her catching up. It's not that there's no suspense, but it's always on shaky ground. And ultimately, the solution is so convoluted and dependent on improbable coincidence that it cancels willing suspension of disbelief. It's kind of sadly ridiculous.

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