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: Serpico (1973)

Release Date: December 5th, 1973 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Waldo Salt, Norman Wexler
Based on: Serpico by Peter Maas
Music by: Mikis Theodorakis
Cast: Al Pacino, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Biff McGuire, Barabara Eda-Young, Cornelia Sharpe, Edward Grover, Tony Roberts, Allan Rich, Albert Henderson, Joseph Bova, Woodie King Jr., James Tolkan, Bernard Barrow, Nathan George, M. Emmet Walsh, Ted Beniades, F. Murray Abraham (uncredited), Judd Hirsch (uncredited)

Artists Entertainment Complex, Produzioni De Laurentiis International Manufacturing Company, 130 Minutes

Review:

“The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry – it just gets dirtier.” – Frank Serpico

The early ’70s were a hell of a great time for the still young Al Pacino’s career. Not only did he star in two near perfect Godfather movies but he also starred in two great films by legendary director Sidney Lumet: Dog Day Afternoon and this, Serpico.

Out of the four films, this may be my least favorite but man, it’s still incredible, holds up exceptionally well and boasts one of Pacino’s greatest performances, as he plays former detective Frank Serpico, who was instrumental in shedding light on the corrupt activities of the New York Police Department of his time.

Pacino carries this film from scene-to-scene but honestly, I don’t think that was a difficult thing for him to do, even in the early ’70s. The rest of the cast isn’t full of well-known actors like his other films from the era, so he really steps his game up here. That’s not to say that the actors in this aren’t talented, they certainly are, you just can’t compare them to the large cast in the Godfather films or the other great character actors that were weaved into Dog Day Afternoon.

The greatness of this motion picture has just as much to do with the direction of Lumet, as it does the acting of Pacino, though. The two men were one hell of a team when they were together on the same project.

Lumet proves, once again, that he is a master craftsman behind the camera. This gritty, too real film has stupendous cinematography from the lighting, shot framing and overall visual tone. This is generally a dark movie but it has a lot of texture to it and life within every frame. It’s brooding and haunting yet it has energy and passion. It’s almost like a cinematic yin and yang, executed to perfection.

Additionally, Lumet just knows how to pull the best performances out of his actors. I’m not sure how involved he was in casting the whole film but I’d have to guess that he was either very involved or used someone that he trusted with his life. Everyone in this is perfect for their role, regardless of its size.

Ultimately, this is a damn good movie in just about every regard. While I found the pacing a little slow in a few parts, everything still felt necessary to the story and the end result is impressive.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other crime films of the 1970s, especially those starring Al Pacino.

Film Review: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Also known as: Dog Day (worldwide English informal short title)
Release Date: September 19th, 1975 (Spain – San Sebastian Film Festival)
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Frank Pierson, Thomas Moore
Based on: The Boys In the Bank by P. F. Kluge
Cast: Al Pacino, John Cazale, James Broderick, Charles Durning, Lance Henriksen, Chris Sarandon, Penelope Allen, Sully Boyar, Susan Peretz, Carol Kane, Dominic Chianese

Artists Entertainment Complex, Warner Bros., 125 Minutes, 131 Minutes (1975 cut)

Review:

“Look, Mom, I’m a fuck-up and I’m an outcast and that’s it. You come near me, you’re gonna get it – you’re gonna get fucked over and fucked out!” – Sonny

I’ve probably seen this movie a half dozen times but it’s been a few decades. I always saw this on cable, so it was always the “safe for TV” version and having now watched this again, I realized that I had never seen the beginning of the film, as I never knew there was initially a third bank robber that bolted in the opening sequence of the movie.

It was really great seeing this in full and the way it was meant to be seen without cable television censors getting in the way of the art. Being that this is a Sidney Lumet film, it deserves to be seen as the director intended, as he was a true motion picture maestro.

Seeing this now also made me appreciate how good John Cazale was and it makes me wonder how great his career could have been had cancer not taken his life in 1978. In fact, this was the last film of his that he lived to see released theatrically. But it’s crazy to think about what iconic roles after his death he may have had a shot at playing or what mediocre movies he could’ve elevated had he been cast in place of others.

Additionally, this shows how incredible Al Pacino was in an era where he was still growing as an actor but already displayed the chops that would earn him legendary status.

The rest of the cast is pretty damn perfect too from the cop to the federal agents to the bank teller with the least amount of lines. Lumet did a spectacular job in getting the most out of his cast: utilizing their strengths and personalities to maximum effect.

The majority of the film takes place in one location but this moves at such a brisk pace that it doesn’t bog things down, which can happen fairly easy in pictures without the talent that this one had.

Plus, the cinematography was solid, the musical score was perfect and the film just had the right sort of tone. It felt like real, gritty, ’70s New York City without coming off as edgy or dark like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Granted, this was a film that had its fair share of violence and perilous, unfortunate situations but even knowing the outcome could never be good for the main characters, you still didn’t give up hope or fall into a sense of despair.

Dog Day Afternoon is a motion picture that deserves its status as one of the best films of its decade. It also boasts some of the best performances by just about all the key actors involved.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other crime films of the 1970s, especially those starring Al Pacino.

Film Review: 12 Angry Men (1957)

Release Date: April 13th, 1957
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Reginald Rose
Music by: Kenyon Hopkins
Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, Joseph Sweeney, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Edward Binns, George Voskovec, Robert Webber

Orion-Nova Productions, United Artists, 96 Minutes 

12_angry_menReview:

Being an avid film buff my entire life almost feels like complete bullshit when I haven’t seen 12 Angry Men until now.

In my defense (pun intended), I’m just not a big fan of courtroom dramas. I usually find them tedious and rambling and a complete bore to watch. Although, for some strange reason, I loved watching Perry Mason reruns with my granmum in the 80s. That was probably just more about bonding time and I was waiting for the Cubs game to start in the afternoon.

Regardless, I have always heard that 12 Angry Men was one of the absolute best movies ever made. I have also heard about how great of a director Sidney Lumet is but I haven’t seen enough of his pictures, outside of my film studies classes in high school. I am trying to rectify that injustice.

12 Angry Men is fantastic. Considering that IMDb’s Top 250 has it ranked as the fifth best film ever made, says a lot. It has an 8.9 rating on IMDb, as well as 5/5 on Amazon, 4/4 by Roger Ebert, a 94 percent by Google users and a 100 percent by critics with 97 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. How many films can claim accolades like that?

The film follows twelve jurors who sit in one room, for the entire film, as they discuss a murder case. At first, everyone except one man (Henry Fonda) thinks that the verdict of guilty is an obvious one. As the movie rolls on, Fonda’s Juror No. 8 defends his stance and challenges all the other men. This leads to ninety minutes of fantastic debate about the case and the facts and what it actually means to serve on a jury. It exposes the men and their true feelings and examines their biases, their character and their morals. It is probably the most important film on the subject and I honestly feel, should be required viewing in every high school civics class.

Sidney Lumet shot this film very straightforward without any bells, whistles or special flourishes. It almost plays out like a documentary, at times.

The acting is magnificent and everything about the film feels truly organic. Henry Fonda, who I have always loved, is at his absolute best. Jack Klugman, who would later go on to star in The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E., has never shined brighter. Ed Begley, Lee J. Cobb and Jack Warden were damn near perfection as the very vocal opposition to Fonda and those he rallied to his side.

12 Angry Men is truly a film devoid of flaws. I’m not really sure why the hell it was remade in the 90s for television. Although that version has some high critical praise, as well. Maybe I’ll watch it someday.

With as many motion pictures as I have seen in my life, it is extremely rare to find something so immaculate. 12 Angry Men is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest films I have ever experienced.

It is also just as important today, as it was in 1957.

Rating: 10/10