Screeners '02 #1
Universal Pictures: Brewster's Millions, It Came from Outer Space, On the Edge, Silent Running, Which Way Is Up?.
Nutty Professor II: The Klumps
Which Way Is Up?
BY: DAVID PERRY
"What is most wonderful and most missed about the humor of Richard Pryor is his simultaneous rage and vulnerability -- that sense of being mad as hell yet still yearning for and believing in acceptance and reconciliation, whether he was riffing about black folks, white folks, women, politics, black male macho or drug addiction. For Pryor, humor and talking much shit was a way to reveal not only his, but our collective psyche."
In November 1998, Salon.com began a series of biographies for legends called Brilliant Careers. In original intent, it was a way to write loving obituaries for living artists: Phil Spector, Pete Townshend, and Richard Pryor. By the end of its run, in May 2000, Pryor had been joined by the likes of David Letterman, Charles Schultz, Lou Reed, Marcel Marceau, and even David Cronenberg. Why did an enraged comic from Illinois, whose act consisted of every expletive in the book and an indiscreet willingness to question everything America considered right about racial interaction, precede names like those?
Jill Nelson wrote in her 24 November 1998 Brilliant Careers column titled "Pryor Knowledge" of the Richard Pryor that, at 58, had been debilitated by Multiple Sclerosis to the point that he could not speak at his own Mark Twain Prize award banquet. Her loving piece on a man whose career served as the racial mirror of Lenny Bruce, brings back all the memories of a young boy in Cambridge, MA, who would spend the night over at the home of a friend whose video collection included the supposedly adulterant comedy shows of Richard Pryor. Living in the lily white neighborhood, this was an introduction into the social interests of a race, of a strata, of a people across the River. We laughed, yes, but we also learned that there were so many problems in the world off of Irving St.
By the time I had come to love movies, my interests in Pryor had waned -- I had already found Eddie Murphy Raw and the other comedians who learned the trade from Pryor. The Toy, Superman III, and Brewster's Millions, all of which I saw around 1987, lacked the comic appeal of his stand-up shows, where he had the freedom to play around with expletives, adult subjects, and, more than anything else, social inequalities that would not fit in the PG-rated films Hollywood wanted him to play in.
On 21 May, Universal will revisit the career of Richard Pryor with a pair of restored DVDs marking the two major sections in his Hollywood career. 1977's Which Way Is Up? works on similar turf to what made Pryor famous with satires of sex, work, socialism, and religion; 1985's Brewster's Millions, instead, feels like watching a muzzled Pryor trying to play cute in a role tailor-made for someone (anyone) else. 'Tis a pity neither of movie really succeeds.
Which Way Is Up? definitely stands as the better of the two, with an easiness that fits the story -- a revamping of Lina Wertmüller's The Seduction of Mimi, dealing with the escalating problems involved in the mobility of a union lackey -- and a collection of Richard Pryor characterizations that do more for the story than anyone else in the movie. Pryor plays three roles, migrant worker Leroy Jones, old curmudgeon Rufus Jones, and sinning reverend Lenox Thomas. This collection of characters play well since Pryor shows an ability to effectively play off of himself without making it seem forced (he's like a precursor to Eddie Murphy's work in Coming to America and The Nutty Professor).
However, problems arise mainly because most of the comedy, penned by Cecil Brown and Carl Gottlieb, seems to be pervasive for the sake of being so. Many of the film's most feeble jokes are built around the expletives that Pryor is known to bandy out. It's like hiring George Carlin to play a foul-mouthed protester -- if the audience has been brought in based on his previous work, they've already seen all this stuff done before.
This lewdness inherent in Which Way Is Up? has kept it from raising out of the anonymity of many late 1970's neo-comical blaxploitational films. That is not the case with Brewster's Millions, which has continued to play on channels like TBS thanks to a more family-friendly tone. The movie -- the sixth adaptation of George Barr McCutcheon's novel of the same name -- follows a lower class schmuck, Monty Brewster (Pryor), given the chance to make $300 million in inheritance if he can squander $30 million in 30 days without making any money (i.e. no successful stock market deals) or holding any assets (i.e. no material purchases). In other words, Brewster must spend all of his money on wages, rents, and tiny gifts to get rid of this money lest he break the contract and thus give the inheritance over to the corrupt bank.
The frenzy Pryor wants to unleash is often visible in his physical reactions, but so much of his comic styling has been muted by the film, to the point he cannot even save himself from the unfunny material written by Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris. Even more disappointing is the fact that Brewster's Millions was directed by Walter Hill, who was fresh off of hits like 48 Hrs. and The Warriors. What's most saddening is the fact that both Hill and Pryor have it in them to infuse enough discourse into a smart and witty film to create a terrific work. Unfortunately, their only cooperative was on something with less bite than a Wally Cox commercial.
Most of Pryor's best films, as well as his still poignant
comedy specials, have already been brought to the DVD. These Universal releases are short
of a major unveiling of Pryor's achievements to digital entertainment, but at least their
release comes as a reminder of what other magnificent choices are waiting for some kid in
Cambridge to discover.
BY: DAVID PERRY
|It Came from Outer Space
BY: DAVID PERRY
Today the sci-fi and horror genre have become dependent on sudden scares to get their needed reaction. No longer do filmmakers rely on character development, obvious visual effects, and underlying social interests to catapult the genres into a haven for B-movies that were actually more personal and important than some A-movies.
One of the early B-movie landmarks was 1953's It Came from Outer Space. From Jack Arnold, who also directed such matinee classics as Creature of the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man, the movie has the wild-eyed hopefulness of a kid enjoying a day out to the theatre for a double feature. While much of it seems dated now, the enthusiasm that Arnold brought to the screen remains in its most recent form on DVD, and it brings those awed eyes out of that ten-year-old in all of us.
The film begins with a date between idealistic science fiction writer John Putnam (Carlson) and his beloved girlfriend Ellen (Rush). After finishing dinner, they begin stargazing through John's telescope when a huge object falls from the sky and into the nearby mines. Thinking it is a meteor, John decides he will go and have a look at this entity only to find a large spacecraft smoldering in the crater. But, before he can bring anyone to see it, the caves around it collapse and cover the ship. John's attempts to alert the authorities and the townspeople of what he saw soon labels him as a kook in the community.
Soon the aliens who came with the ship make their presence known. They simply want to get back to their home planet, but getting the needed material to fix the ship is impossible in their form, so they must abduct locals and take their place. At first, the people just continue to think that John is just ranting from an over-productive imagination that his friends seem odder than before their sudden and momentary disappearance from the town; then, as the rest of the town understands what is really happening, he must be ridiculed for his pacifist pleadings to not call a militia on the aliens and just let them leave.
Serving as a barely-veiled strike on the communist red scare running around America at the time, It Came from Outer Space looks alarmingly at the way people react to the slightest oddity from their perfect existence. Woody Allen recently spoke on this phenomenon in reference to his masterpiece Zelig, where he portrays a chameleon moving from various groups. His statement is that with conformities comes fascism -- if people are unwilling to accept anything other than the status quo, they are destined for the destructive leadership of a Hitler or a Mussolini. Jack Arnold is similarly going with this, except that his rising leader is not from abroad but sitting in the US Senate holding his list of known communists.
Almost everything that a modern artist would dislike about It
Came from Outer Space if it came out in this form today, helps it in its impact.
Though it does turn to some unneeded sermonizing at the end, its love for the youthful
passion of the genre is worth more than a multi-million dollar CGI effects crew. As John
Putnam excitedly looks up at the stars, the audience looks up at the screen with equal
|On the Edge
BY: DAVID PERRY
There was a N'Sync video a couple of years ago called "I Drive Myself Crazy" in which the performers feebly attempt to portray themselves being driven to madness by losing their girlfriends. This music video, nonetheless, has more insight into the people's madness than the Irish import On the Edge, which could best be described as Girl, Interrupted with a brogue.
The setting is at a psychiatric hospital where inmates move room to room, pub to pub, trying to show off their witty rapport and their inclination to defy the clinical establishment. Their efforts are redundant conversational pieces that deal with their ailments, most of which have more schlock value than shock value.
At the center of the story is Jonathan Breech (Murphy), a 19-year-old who reacted to the death of his alcoholic father by driving a stolen car over a cliff. He comes out of the wreck with only a couple scratches and a broken finger. As part of his punishment for the crime, he is sent to a mental institution, where they can look over him and try to figure out why brought him to commit suicide.
In the clinic he meets a variety of patients in a therapy group headed by Dr. Figure (Rea). There's compulsive Mickey (Hickey), a person who begins to hate Jonathan from his first entrance into the clinic; there's guilt-driven Toby (Jackson), who begins to find solace in the cynicism spoken by Jonathan; and there's suicidal Rachel (Vessey), who is interested in beginning a sexual relationship with Jonathan. Skeletons sit in closets -- Toby is responsible for the vehicular death of his brother, Rachel likes to cut herself with razor blades -- and, as fate (contrivance) would have it, Jonathan serves as a better listener for therapy than Dr. Figure is.
In possibly one of the least commanding movies of recent years, On the Edge features hackneyed characters in hackneyed in situations that lead to nothing near interesting. Like Girl, Interrupted, director John Carney seems to be under the belief that everything that goes on in the film is the pinnacle of narrative filmmaking. The absolution of characters is treated with a heavy-handedness often passed-on by modern Irish cinema.
Cillian Murphy gives a performance that fits the cynicism but misses on the needed sulleness. At no point does the character of Jonathan rise into anything more than a collection of quips from a frowning face. When he smiles (most commonly during a forced musical montage), it is meant to be a chance to peer into his untapped childhood -- instead it just feels like a momentarily counter to his sadness.
Most of the supporting cast similarly fails, especially American actor Jonathan Jackson, who gives the worst Irish accent since Brad Pitt struggled with it in The Devil's Own. Paul Hickey comes out too cartoonish, with exaggerated reactions that make Brad Pitt's performance in 12 Monkeys seem subtle. Meanwhile, the film's single voice of femininity to turns out to be surprisingly more annoying than Brittany Murphy in 28 Days in much more silent package.
On the Edge, a horridly directed, written, and
acted film, never had a major release in America due to the fact that distributor
Universal acknowledged the fact that bad art films not only have the small audience but
also lack any support from critics. By doing so, Universal did a service for filmgoers,
keeping them from even having to hear those annual prerelease musings that On the Edge
would be the nexy big find from a major studio. I never thought I'd say this, but it
is an institutional film worse than Girl, Interrupted, lacking even the strength
of Angelina Jolie's performance. The closest attribute On the Edge has is its
momentary use of Herb Albert.
BY: DAVID PERRY
No one can really question the important innovations Douglas Trumbull has brought to filmgoers over the years. His work on cinematic visual effects has turned him into an icon within the industry. The Towering Inferno, The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey all proved to be some of the most visually mesmerizing films of their times thanks to Trumbull's prowess.
However, as a director, Trumbull has never really show the talent he so often used for the effects he supervised. He's directed a vast collection of experimental shorts and film process tests (most notably the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios), all of which use his know-how to good effect thanks to their short format and Trumbull's inability to impede within the producer's tight lengths. His two features are another story: both Silent Running and Brainstorm proved to visually stimulating films, but ultimately are remembered more for their emptiness.
Nevertheless, both films are still viewed regularly today, despite their misgivings. Brainstorm, though, is only an occasional viewing for its early Christopher Walken performance and the final, posthumously released performance of Natalie Wood. Silent Running does, with fervent attraction, have a cult following. And these followers were more than willing to complain about the lackluster DVD release, meaning that for Silent Running's thirtieth anniversary, Universal Home Entertainment goes back to revisit the 1971 sci-fi drama and pack it with enough extras to make owners of their flimsy American Psycho and Mulholland Dr. releases.
Silent Running, an early campaign video for Ralph Nader's 2000 campaign, deals with the problems of ecology and the way man misunderstands nature's importance to existence. The Gaia Theory is here in all its glory, even if the movie is entirely set in a space station. Freeman Lowell (Dern) has spent eight years on this station, where he has looked over the biosphere with a green thumb -- meanwhile, none of his fellow astronauts (Potts, Rifkin, and Vint) has an interest in keeping this ecological experiment going, despite the fact that it is the only remaining collection of natural artifacts in existence.
And then the home base sends in a request: destroy the biosphere. No reason is given, but that does not matter, the duteous astronauts are willing to start work on blowing up Lowell's life's work. In fear of not only losing his job, but also losing all the plants and animals in his care, Lowell kills his cohorts and attempts to get out of the grasp of his superiors. All the while, he can have companionship with the three robot drones who help him water plants and play cards with him. It's like a downbeat, nature-minded precursor to Mystery Science Theater 3000, except that they are in the bad movie instead of watching it.
Silent Running is not necessarily a horrible affair -- in fact some of its moments are truly engaging -- but it is overwrought by its own sermonizing. Its ecological message is so constant that, not unlike Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, it collapses from the weight of its statements. Screenwriters Deric Washburn, Steven Bochco, and Michael Cimino (yes, that Michael Cimino), struggle to inject more into the film than their environmentalist thesis, but only consume the film with unneeded filler. Bruce Dern, giving a performance that simultaneously mixes overwrought emoting and respectable timing, has to keep the film chugging along for an extra hour.
The visual effects by Trumbull does give something to the
audience to keep the time going, but all of it feels forced after awhile. Anyone who has
seen both 2001 and Solaris has already seen the amalgam of aesthetic
ethos and cinematic trickery in a much better form. It took Kubrick and Tarkovsky three
hours each to get their stories into their complete forms, much indebted to their long but
fluid and sated screenplays; it takes Trumbull only 90 minutes for his film to fall apart.
Silent Running, as Douglas Trumbull has learned over the years, is a piece that
would probably work far better as a short than as a feature. Not only would it be less
time-consuming but also less self-destructive.