When I was 19, my friends and I invented fireball. We hollowed out a nerf football, filled it with gas, lit it on fire, and kicked it around. The goal of the game, more or less, was…Do Not Die. I mention this as a standard of comparison because when Eddie Murphy was 19, he was starring on Saturday Night Live.
People forget after Murphy’s career has bottomed out twice, that he was in the 1980s the single biggest comedy superstar of his generation. SNL would have died on the vine after the original cast left the show if Murphy had not single-handedly kept the sketch comedy show afloat. Then came 48 Hours when Murphy was 21. By the time Beverly Hills Cop came out in 1984, Murphy (a seasoned 24 years of age) was a rock star, and unlike 48 Hours, which has not aged very well, Beverly Hills Cop still stands up a quarter-century later.
The fish out of water story is a staple of comedy (and film in general), but there’s something about Detroit cop Axel Foley (Murphy) wandering around the surreal landscape of 1980s Beverly Hills that works incredibly well. The film had kicked around Hollywood for years mostly as a much more serious action film. Mickey Rourke was first offered the part. Sylvester Stallone had it for a while and had renamed the character “Axel Cobretti”. Richard Pryor, Al Pacino, and James Caan all passed on the role before it was retooled to be an action-comedy and Murphy was approached after the success of 48 Hours. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Film Musical or Comedy and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and ended up as the highest-grossing film of 1984 in the United States.
As good as Murphy is as Foley, and he’s astounding, he nearly has his movie stolen from him by a pre-Perfect Strangers Bronson Pinchot. Sometimes all someone has to do to be funny in a bit role is to just be patently absurd. There’s something about Serge’s accent that makes it impossible for me to listen to him for more than thirty seconds without losing my mind, and I’m not alone. All through the gallery scene that introduces Serge to the world, Murphy is clearly barely keeping it together. Eddie’s best scene is the classic storming of the country club, but it’s Serge that keeps me rewatching this film.
I have a proposal that I think will make Philosophy 101 more palatable for all college freshman: replace the course with a binge watch of The Good Place. Now, I do understand that there are people who enjoy deep philosophical arguments. I do get that. But, by and large, those people are already collegiate philosophy professors and are, in this context, the problem. Michael Schur, the brilliant creator of both Parks & Recreation and The Good Place, is the rare example of a person who finds philosophy fascinating and not terribly serious. The Good Place disguises is with humor and an afterlife landscape that seems like the sort of thing Douglas Adams would come up with after drinking a lot of off-label cough syrup, but the show is sneakily giving its viewers a more effective philosophical education than they’re likely to find anywhere in higher education. A perfect example of this is season two’s exploration of the trolley problem.
You see a runaway trolley moving toward five tied-up (or otherwise incapacitated) people lying on the tracks. You are standing next to a lever that controls a switch. If you pull the lever, the trolley will be redirected onto a side track, and the five people on the main track will be saved. However, there is a single person lying on the side track. You have two options:
Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the more ethical option?
One of the pillars of The Good Place’s own philosophy is that anyone can change for the better. Season two, in large part, follows the journey of demon Michael (Ted Danson) as he learns more about what makes humans tick. The most hysterical example of this is when Michael plops the terminally indecisive Chidi into the middle of a real-life trolley problem and…ups the stakes. The Good Place isn’t just a good time. As it nears the end of its third season, The Good Place has become the best comedy of the decade and arguably the best show on television.
This is a very strange time for movie mutants. With the Disney/FOX merger nearly complete, the X-franchises, which ushered in the modern age of superhero films with 2000’s X-Men, are in limbo. New Mutants and Dark Phoenix will likely wrap up the FOX-era X-Men films, and you could see Xavier and Co. in the MCU in the next three years. Where does that leave the insanely successful Deadpool franchise? That’s a really good question.
The MCU is traditionally PG-13, something that Deadpool never has been…until this Christmas. The release of Once Upon a Deadpool, essentially a PG-13 recut of Deadpool 2, may be an audition for a more family-friendly Merc With a Mouth…or it could just be a naked cash grab to squeeze just a little more money out of Deadpool 2‘s run.
One thing that is dead is the X-Force spinoff that Deadpool 2 sets up. That is a crying shame because for the problems I did have with the film (and I did like it very much overall), the introduction and execution (literally) of X-Force was the best thing about ‘Pool 2. Deadpool is at his best when he’s just allowed to be the unhinged, manic id of the Marvel Universe. It’s why the character is better off without PG-13 shackles. A huge part of Deadpool’s appeal is the anticipation that he may say or do absolutely anything at any given moment, and you lose that if you bring him down a rating level.
If you were a comic book fan in the 1990s, you could not avoid X-Force. Rob Liefeld’s supergroup of pouty-lipped, barely-footed mutants was a sales juggernaut. They could also be…well, I don’t currently have the mental bandwidth to get into Rob Liefeld, but suffice it to say that there are few things that made me as happy and laugh as hard as watching Shatterstar’s demise. The entire sequence, from Deadpool’s open casting call, to his inspirational plane speech, to the shortest outing in super-team history is sheer brilliance. Special recognition to Brad Pitt for one of the most unexpected cameos in recent memory and to Rob Delaney’s Peter. Oh, Peter. I miss you the most, too.
Recently I finished my umpteenth re-watch of the misadventures of the waffle-loving, mini-horse worshipping civil servants that make up the cast of Parks & Recreation. The more I think it over, the more certain I am that Parks & Rec mastermind Michael Schur (who now brings us the equally brilliant The Good Place) created the best sitcom of the last decade. Parks & Rec started off as a spiritual spin-off of The Office, borrowing that show’s fake documentary format and, like The Office, the first season is short and underwhelming. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve urged to try Parks & Rec who have flamed out after a few episodes, so if you want to start (and you should), start with season two when the show found its own voice and the brilliant ensemble began to run at full tilt.
In the times in which we currently live, there’s something unbelievably cathartic about a show heralding the positive impact the government can make in the lives of citizens. Even if you should loathe the government, the show provides the greatest comedic Libertarian ever forged in the mustachioed Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). The show is earnest and heartfelt; self-aware and smart, and nearly always hysterically goofy. I’ve written before about the show’s third season (peerless) which contains my favorite moment in the series in the brilliant “Ron’s Swivel Desk”. I have to revisit that season because it also contains my favorite running absurdity of the series: Pawnee’s rabid celeb crush on local mini-horse: Lil’ Sebastian. I can’t decide which moment in the episode is better: the tiny equine’s introduction and Adam Scott’s utter bafflement at his co-worker’s excitement or Chris Pratt’s “5,000 Candles in the Wind” tribute at the Harvest Festival so I am including both. In the dead of winter, if you need a laugh to warm your heart, you can’t go wrong revisiting Parks & Recreation.
Mission Impossible: Fallout defied the two defining trends of 2018 at the films. It exceeded the wildest expectations anyone had for the sixth film in a 22-year-old series, and it managed to be the poster child for how franchises can be amazing in a year when franchise fatigue seemed to reach a new level of punishing. Not only is Fallout the best MI film, but it’s also arguably the best film of last year and the best action film since at least Mad Max: Fury Road. The film manages to weave a coherent and compelling plot around a series of action set pieces that play like a compelling audition tape for the creation of a Best Stunt Work Oscar category. No matter what kind of action scene is your personal favorite (skydive; gunfight; fist fight; crashes; explosions; and chases by foot, helicopter, motorcycle, and car) Fallout does them and does them as well as any film ever has.
Picking one of those set pieces to elevate over the others is a tough call. The HALO jump is astonishing. Cruise and Cavill’s restroom rumble is fantastic. My favorite sequence of the film though is the extraction of the film’s villain, Solomon Lane, from custody and the ensuing madness in Paris. Director Christopher McQuarrie, who also wrote the film, crafted a masterful action sequence in which an improvising Ethan Hunt has to figure out a way to break his nemesis out of a moving armored convoy while minimizing any collateral damage intended by his allies of the moment. The sequence, which also highlights the film’s gorgeous cinematography and score by Lorne Balfe, typifies what I think is Fallout’s best move: humanizing Ethan Hunt. There’s more characterization for Ethan in this film than in the previous five combined and, with a few exceptions, most of is done in the beats between actions. He’s tired in this film. Always so cocksure and calculated, Hunt spends a lot of Fallout looking out-of-breath and in overt exasperated disbelief at some of the things he still has to do to keep the world safe. Tom Cruise, at age 56, finally lets his character look his age, and I think he’s a more interesting protagonist for it. Fallout a bar for quality that’s going to be a near (brace for it) impossible standard for future installments of the franchise to follow. If there’s a flaw in the film, I can’t find it.