(On Cable TV, February 2019) The 1970s were a dark, sad decade for movie musicals, and The Wiz does nothing to change my mind about it. This musical remake of The Wizard of Oz uses black actors and a modern-day urban setting, but seems determined to waste both its premise and its potential. There was a lot of it to start with, what with a cast that starts with Diana Ross and then goes on to Richard Prior and Michael Jackson. The surprisingly slow start sets the tone for the disappointment to come, what with Ross looking far too old to play a teenager, and a film that appears determined to suppress any of her natural sex appeal. It gets better once she starts to sing, but not all that much. Michael Jackson fares much better in what is probably his finest screen role, nearly unrecognizable as the Scarecrow, but with his very distinctive voice shining through. Meanwhile, Pryor is in-keeping with the impact of the movie, a disappointment as the Wizard that undermines even an already-undermined character. As a clone of its original inspiration, The Wiz isn’t all that good: Occasionally too scary for kids, far too dull for adults, it also takes many of the original film’s most satisfying (but not necessarily the most realistic) plot points and blurs them into meaninglessness. The production design can be imaginative and ambitious at times, but it’s not successful at what it does. The ending is exceptionally disappointing, running three musical numbers too long and delving into cheap pop philosophy to overstate what was perfectly obvious in the original. The only musical number that works, both on a musical level and a narrative one is the insanely catchy “Ease on Down”, which is worth saving from the rest of this overlong misfire. Reading about the film’s complicated production history is instructive in understanding why it ended up being so disappointing, but this is the result we’re stuck with. (Even Xanadu was more fun than this, if not necessarily more coherent or less dated to the disco era.) Alas, the damage done by The Wiz didn’t stop at the movie itself or its audience: Historically, this film was a notorious flop in every way, and is seen as having led to the end of the era for black-focused films as reinvigorated by the blaxploitation movement. If that’s correct, The Wiz has a lot more to answer for than for wasting more than two hours of everyone’s time even forty years later. (Minus five minutes for “Ease on Down”, because it’s that good.)
(On Cable TV, April 2018) Gene Wilder was a fantastic comedian, and his presence elevated many of the otherwise unremarkable movies he starred in. Stir Crazy is, on many levels, a rather average film—two down-on-their-luck protagonists being jailed on some spurious charges and working their way out of there. But throw in Wilder and Richard Prior in the lead roles and the film becomes much better than it feels on paper. Never mind the plot and how it ends up with prisoners entering a mechanical bull riding competition (!) when there’s Wilder’s character going in solitary confinement and emerging as serene as a man having come in touch with himself can be. Those moments, far more than the forgettable plot, are what sticks in mind after watching Stir Crazy. There is some similarity in tone here with the original The Longest Yard—kind of an underdogs-and-outlaws-are-cool outlook to unify otherwise very different films. Otherwise, there really isn’t much here to stick in mind, as pleasant as the film can be.
(Third viewing, On Cable TV, June 2017) Aw, yes, Superman III. I know what the reviewers say, and yet you will never be able to convince me that it’s a movie that I should not enjoy. Keep in mind that I didn’t have cable TV when I was a kid … but one of my aunts did, and I was amazed, while visiting back in 1984, to see Superman III show up on a TV screen years before it would be broadcast on network channels. Also keep in mind that Superman III spends a lot of time talking about computers, something that fascinated me then and still interests me now. Never mind that it’s a comedy with seriously dumb ideas about technology: it’s still a lovely time capsule about how people saw computing as magic back then. Then there are the sequences: Superman turning evil and going full-shmuck! Superman fighting himself in a junk yard, wow! Superman going against a supercomputer with a vat of acid! Nine-year-old me was amazed back then, and forty-one-year old me is still charmed right now by the whole thing. I’ll acknowledge that the film is deeply flawed. Putting Richard Prior in the movie is good for an atypical hacker character, but the various attempts to force comedy out of the film (the ski jump scene and the videogame being the worst) often seem jarringly out of place. The Superman-versus-Superman stuff is still quite good, though, the return-to-Smallville subplot works well, and I enjoyed the funhouse depiction of magical computers far more than I thought. While Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is sorely missed, I did not mind at all Lois Lane’s amusing cameo—and rather liked Annette O’Toole as Lana Lang. Christopher Reeves, as usual, is near-perfect as both Clark Kent and Superman. Heck, I even liked the opening slapstick credit sequence. In other words, you may argue forever that Superman III is a bad movie and I won’t dispute the point much. But it’s a bad movie that I like a lot, and there’s no disputing that either.