Film Review: The Wiz (1978)

Release Date: October 24th, 1978
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Joel Schumacher
Based on: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, The Wiz by William F. Brown
Music by: Charlie Smalls, various
Cast: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, Mabel King, Thelma Carpenter, Theresa Merritt, Stanley Greene, Roberta Flack (uncredited), Quincy Jones (uncredited), Luther Vandross (uncredited)

Motown Productions, Universal Pictures, 134 Minutes

Review:

“Success, fame, and fortune, they’re all illusions. All there is that is real is the friendship that two can share.” – Scarecrow, “That’s beautiful! Who said that?” – Dorothy, “[modestly] I did.” – Scarecrow

It’s been ages since I’ve seen this but I enjoyed it back in the day. Mainly, because I always thought the sets, style and overall visual look of it was pretty awesome. Although, it was also loaded with people I like such as Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Mabel King and more.

It wasn’t until more recently that I discovered that this was directed by Sidney Lumet with a script by Joel Scumacher. Also, Quincy Jones was very involved in the production. Having a newfound understanding of the talent involved in this made me want to revisit it with fairly fresh eyes and ears.

I’m really glad that I did, as it still captivated me and pulled me into its magical world.

Now the film has its share of flaws but it’s one of those movies that’s so fun and sweet that you don’t really care about the imperfections.

While Diana Ross was too old to play Dorothy, I still think she’s pretty great in this once you suspend disbelief. Originally, the film was supposed to star the young lead actress from the stage musical but Ross really pulled some strings to get this part. Honestly, I don’t blame her and movies are a cutthroat business.

Anyway, Ross is still Ross and she has immense talent, which shines through in her performance. Also, her scenes with Michael Jackson are so genuine and affectionate that it transcends the picture. The two were great friends before this film went into production and I think that personal connection really boosted their performances.

Nipsey Russell is tremendous as the Tin Man, as is Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion.

I have to say, though, the absolute highlight of the film for me is the grand performance by Mabel King, this film’s version of the wicked witch, as she makes her factory workers slave away. Man, this scene is just amazing to watch from the size of the set, it’s design, the amount of performers in the sequence and King’s perfect performance.

Two other really solid sequences are the one where Dorothy meets the Munchkins, which was filmed at the somewhat dilapidated New York State Pavilion at Flushing Meadows. It was a site built for the 1964 World’s Fair but it created such an interesting looking location for Dorothy’s arrival in Oz.

The other was the Emerald City sequence, which was filmed at the foot of the World Trade Center. It’s a beautiful and opulent scene with great music and considering the world we live in now after 9/11, the scene just has much more meaning now. It makes you really appreciate the beauty and immensity of those two iconic structures.

Overall, this is a lively and jubilant picture. I typically don’t like musicals but this is one of the few that I do enjoy.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Brewster’s Millions (1985)

Release Date: May 22nd, 1985
Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Timothy Harris, Herschel Weingrod
Based on: Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon
Music by: Ry Cooder
Cast: Richard Pryor, John Candy, Lonette McKee, Stephen Collins, Hume Cronyn, David White, Jerry Orbach, Pat Hingle, David Wohl, Tovah Feldshuh, Peter Jason, Rick Moranis

Lawrence Gordon Productions, Davis Entertainment, Silver Pictures, Universal Pictures, 102 Minutes

Review:

“Gentlemen, do you think I’m a lowlife?” – Monty Brewster, “Oh no, Mr. Brewster. Not with these clothes.” – Tailor

When I was a kid, this was my favorite Richard Pryor movie. I probably watched this dozens of times, as it was on television a lot. I also liked that it starred John Candy and that Rick Moranis pops up in it, albeit in a pretty minor role.

This was also a remake of a 1920s Fatty Arbuckle film that I’ve never seen but honestly, that’s long overdue and I should probably give that one a watch.

For being a light comedy in the opulent and fun ’80s, I thought that the story and all its details were really well-crafted.

Basically, Pryor’s Monte Brewster has inherited $300 million but in order to collect it, he has to pass a test where he has to spend $30 million. But there are all these fine details into what he can and can’t do and that’s what makes the story really good.

There are twists and turns throughout and there are also some people that try to trick him into failing at every turn because they have a very big financial interest in seeing Brewster lose his right to his inheritance.

Surprisingly, this is directed by Walter Hill. He’s directed stuff like the 48 Hrs. films, The WarriorsRed Heat and other pretty awesome classic action flicks. So a straight up comedy like this makes him an odd choice for director but he taps into the same energy he had when working with Eddie Murphy on the first 48 Hrs. and just kind of applies that to Pryor and Candy.

I think Hill’s involvement actually shows his versatility as a director while also giving this a bit more oomph while making the story work really well in spite of it being more layered than it needed to be for a simple, light-hearted ’80s comedy.

Additionally, I love Pryor in this. I think it may be his best character, as he’s just a really good guy that wants to succeed but also wants to spread that success to those around him. Frankly, it’s impossible not to root for him in this.

Brewster’s Millions is just one of those movies that will always hold a place in my heart. It’s positive, it’s meaningful and it’s a much better movie than it should have been.

Rating: 7.5/10

Film Review: Blazing Saddles (1974)

Also known as: Black Bart (working title)
Release Date: February 7th, 1974
Directed by: Mel Brooks
Written by: Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Al Uger
Music by: John Morris
Cast: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Slim Pickens, Alex Karras, Mel Brooks, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, David Huddleston, Dom DeLuise, Count Basie

Crossbow Productions, Warner Bros., 93 Minutes

Review:

“My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.” – Hedley Lamarr, “God darnit, Mr. Lamarr, you use your tongue prettier than a twenty dollar whore.” – Taggart

I’m a fan of Mel Brooks’ work but not as much as the hardcore fans out there. Most of the ones I’ve talked to over the years seem to like this film the best out of Brooks’ oeuvre. Young Frankenstein is my personal favorite but I’ve also got a deep affinity for the Universal Monsters, which it paradoies.

I also really love westerns too, though. So, naturally, I like this picture quite a bit too. However, I don’t hold it in the same esteem as others.

Everyone in this is pretty damn great, however. Cleavon Little stands out the most, as the actual star of the picture and because he’s just so damn charismatic and likeable. Additionally, his camaraderie and comedic timing with Gene Wilder is incredibly good.

Beyond the two leads, everyone else in the picture is well cast and this is written in a way that allows them all to play to their strengths while also maximizing their value to this large tapestry of talent.

I guess it probably goes without saying but this is a film that you couldn’t make today. It features so much language that would overwhelm the easily offended, which seems to be everyone these days. Modern filmgoers would be so fixated on the language that they’d miss the point of it all.

This was a film that came out in the ’70s and American entertainment was greatly effected by the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the racial tensions the United States had to work through. This movie reflects that, as did most comedy of the time, and it features a lot of racially charged language and situations. But it’s how it handles all of that and presents it that is important. Nowadays, nuance and context are completely lost because fingerblasting your own pearls while on public display is the only way these kids know how to communicate, anymore.

Blazing Saddles is a film that doesn’t give a fuck about anyone’s feelings. It cannonballs into the deep end of the pool, splashing everyone and everything, and it just puts it all out there, letting people express their points and their social grievances through comedy. And this is why comedy was great. It could challenge us, turn the world on its head and directly engage with tough topics and things that many would otherwise try to ignore or suppress.

In reality, comedy brought people together and it built bridges between cultures and different points-of-view born from very different experiences. Also, it didn’t allow everyone to have such thin skins. It forced most people to toughen up and deal with shit, so we could all move forward.

And while I didn’t want a movie review to devolve into a political or social discussion, I know that it’s only a matter of time before the censors retroactively try to cancel this picture.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other Mel Brooks parody films.

Film Review: See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)

Release Date: May 12th, 1989
Directed by: Arthur Hiller
Written by: Earl Barret, Arne Sultan, Eliot Wald, Andrew Kurtzman, Gene Wilder, Marvin Worth
Music by: Stewart Copeland
Cast: Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder, Joan Severance, Kevin Spacey, Alan North, Anthony Zerbe, Zach Grenier

TriStar Pictures, 103 Minutes

Review:

“Today I threatened to shoot a naked woman with my erection.” – Dave

I love Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. I especially love when they team up.

Starting with one of the latter team up films may seem weird but this was actually the first one I saw. I also got to experience it in the theater and its the first time my mum took me to a movie with boobies in it, so I had to try and dodge her hand as she attempted to shield my eyes from the mesmerizing and perfect Joan Severance.

While this is far from a great film and not close to the best of either man’s career, their chemistry is infectious and they’re so great at the buddy formula that there’s just something endearing about this and it’s a movie with genuine heart and soul in it.

Pryor plays a blind man and Wilder plays a deaf man. That is the setup for nearly all the jokes in the movie but even if that sounds like it’d get old really fast, they come up with several clever gags that work throughout the film and the formula doesn’t get as tired as one would expect. Also, it kind of draws awareness to the limitations of those handicaps even though it’s using them for humor. A film like this would probably be shunned in our current PC climate but in 1989, we still knew how to laugh and also understood that sometimes that’s an effective way of dealing with difficult and uncomfortable things.

Not having seen this in years, I forgot that it had Kevin Spacey in it, as well as character actors Anthony Zerbe and Zach Grenier. Joan Severance steals all the scenes she’s in, though, and I was always kind of surprised that her career didn’t take off after this, Bird On A Wire and No Holds Barred. Well, okay… I can see why no one views No Holds Barred as anything other than a cheesy, vanity film for a professional wrestler that essentially just played himself.

In this film, a man is murdered and a careless mistake makes the two stars the prime suspects. Heck, the only suspects. They have to work together to escape the police, clear their names and take down the bad guys. Most importantly, they find true friendship and as corny as this film can get in certain moments, this is where the heart really comes in.

You could tell that these guys loved each other in real life and many of their conversations felt organic and natural even if they usually centered around their characters’ disabilities.

I definitely like this movie more than most people but it’s great escapism, carries a good, positive message and it’s hard not to feel better about life once the credits roll. 

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other comedies with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

Film Review: Superman III (1983)

Also known as: Superman vs. Superman (original script title)
Release Date: June 17th, 1983
Directed by: Richard Lester
Written by: David Newman, Leslie Newman
Based on: Superman by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster
Music by: Ken Thorne, John Williams (themes), Giorgio Moroder (songs)
Cast: Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Robert Vaughn, Annette O’Toole, Annie Ross, Pamela Stephenson, Jackie Cooper, Margot Kidder, Marc McClure, Gavan O’Herlihy, Frank Oz (scene deleted)

Cantharus Productions N.V., Dovemead Films, Warner Bros., 125 Minutes

Review:

“I ask you to kill Superman, and you’re telling me you couldn’t even do that one, simple thing.” – Ross Webster

Out of the original four Superman movies, the first two were good, the last two were not so good. However, Superman III is still much better than Superman IV. And it does actually work as a film depending upon your perspective. But I’ll get into that.

The producers of this film series did some really bizarre stuff with this chapter.

First off, they had some issues with Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder. Hackman was completely written out of the film and replaced by Robert Vaughn as a very Lex Luthor type of character named Ross Webster. He had an evil sister and a girlfriend that was probably supposed to be Miss Tessmacher in the original version of the script.

As far as Margot Kidder went, she was limited to just two scenes and the producers brought in Annette O’Toole to play Lana Lang, a new love interest for Clark Kent. Oddly enough, O’Toole would go on to have a ten year run on Smallville where she played Clark Kent’s mother Martha Kent.

The strangest change of all was the inclusion of Richard Pryor. As great as the man was, this took Superman and turned it into a straight up comedy movie. The producers had heard that Pryor was a fan of the series though, so they threw a bunch of money at him and got him in this picture. Pryor later said that he didn’t like the script but he couldn’t say “no” to the money.

The big shift in tone works against the film series and it turned things into a joke.

However, if you just look at this as a Richard Pryor movie that just happens to have Superman in it, it works in that regard. Now it isn’t Pryor’s best and it is probably one of his worst, as his comedies are all pretty damn good, but as a comedy film this isn’t a complete waste. Frankly, this is how I have to perceive the movie in order to enjoy it.

In fairness, getting past all the weird creative choices, I did like the additions to the cast. I thought O’Toole was nice and sweet and I liked her. Her ex-boyfriend, played by Gavan O’Herlihy (Airk from Willow) was a fun character and a solid ’80s douche. It’s the villains that really stood out for me though. Robert Vaughn is fantastic in this cheese fest and is arguably better as a Luthor character than Gene Hackman. Annie Ross, who played his evil sister was a convincing witch of a lady and Pamela Stephenson was more than satisfactory as this film’s stand in for Miss Tessmacher.

I liked this movie a lot more as a kid but the two sequences I enjoyed most are still enjoyable for me today. Those are the two big battles: Superman vs. Superman and Superman vs. the super computer. I do have to point out that the scene where Annie Ross gets sucked into the computer and turned into a killer cyborg scared the crap out of me when I was four. Now it’s silly as hell but silly in the best way. I also feel like this was a real missed opportunity because the super computer possessing people could have been a good Brainiac story. Originally, Brainiac was supposed to be a villain in this, as was Supergirl.

A lot of people hate Superman III and I understand their frustration with it. But a lot of time has passed and if you just look at this as a Richard Pryor movie with Supes in it, it’s not so bad.

Rating: 5.25/10
Pairs well with: The other films in the Superman series with Christopher Reeve. Also, the Richard Pryor films of the ’80s.

Film Review: Hit! (1973)

Release Date: September 18th, 1973
Directed by: Sidney J. Furie
Written by: Alan Trustman, David M. Wolf
Music by: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, Norman Burton

Paramount Pictures, 134 Minutes

Review:

“You know the government pays me $18,000 to be a computer programmer. I’d trade every single cent… just for one night with you.” – Esther

I recently got the Amazon Video subscription add-on Brown Sugar. It’s a streaming service that showcases black cinema and television shows but also has a huge library of blaxploitation pictures, which immediately justified the $3.99 monthly fee. Perusing their library, I came across this. It’s a film I have never heard of before but since it stars both Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, I had to click “play”.

Sadly, it didn’t live up to the expectations I had in my mind.

The story is about an FBI agent (Williams) that comes to find his daughter dead after she overdosed. His superiors take him off of the case, as he’s too close to it. So Billy Dee goes rogue, forms his own badass squad and goes after the drug pushers responsible.

The main problem with the film is that it is too long. The length draws the movie out way too much and honestly, this story could and should have been told over ninety minutes and not over nearly two and a half hours. It made the film slow and drab and it actually felt like it was three hours. It had some good moments and a few high points but it was jam packed with so much filler that it was like Taco Bell beef instead of a nice juicy Angus steak. It could have been that Angus steak.

Also, the ending just felt really anticlimactic after sitting through this long, drawn out epic.

Now the acting was good. I liked Williams in this a lot and Richard Pryor was great in his parts. There just wasn’t much else to sink your teeth into.

It was directed by Sidney J. Furie though and that right there could be the crux of the problem. Not to bash the guy but he also directed the abysmal Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, some of the Iron Eagle movies and some other major duds. Granted, this is better than all of those films and he did helm The Appaloosa and Lady Sings the Blues, both of which were well regarded to some degree.

Hit! just isn’t as good of a film as it should have been. In an era of badass blaxploitation movies, it lacks excitement and gravitas. It really isn’t a true blaxploitation film though and maybe that’s why it misses its mark.

Rating: 5.5/10