Thursday, October 6, 2011

May I Have The Netflix/Qwikster (or whatever the hell it is) Envelope Please?---Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again, A Piece of the Action


Back in the seventies, Sidney Poitier decided he wanted to stretch his directing wings a little further, called up his good friend Bill Cosby on the phone and said, “Let’s make a movie together.  We’ll both star and I’ll direct as well”

And Cos replied, “Nope, let’s make three of them.”  And that’s how we ended up with this Cosby/Poitier trilogy from the seventies.  Good story, right?  I thought so too when I made it all up.  You can actually find the true story regarding how these films came to be on the special features of two of them, that being Uptown Saturday Night and a retrospective on A Piece of the Action.  

After having been on a Doris Day binge, and having danced with Schwarzenegger as Conan, I decided to have a fling with Sidney Poitier.  Why these three, when there are so many great Poitier films to choose from?  Because I already own many of Poitier’s films, he’s always been Grade A in my book, and one of his films would be in my top ten of all time list.  So I decided to start with these because my recollection of them was mostly vague.

I did remember quite a bit of Let’s Do It Again which was a good sign.  I couldn’t  remember if I had seen Uptown Saturday Night or A Piece of the Action for sure,  although I was pretty sure I had seen them both somewhere in time.  So I thought it was high time I gave these films another viewing to see how they stack up.  One thing though, while they are considered a trilogy, these films are not related in any other way except that they starred Cosby and Poitier and that Mr. Poitier directed all three. So in fact, they live or die on their own.  Let’s get busy.

If there’s one thing about Netflix/Qwikster envelopes that’s outstanding, it’s their fine use of adjectives to make you want to see a film.  Right there on line two it says, “hilarious misadventure.”  And oh, how I wish it had been so.  But Uptown Saturday Night wasn’t very hilarious.  If you’re lucky, you may get a few seconds of laughs but not from anyone mentioned on this particular envelope.

At least the plot is pretty much on the money, minus a few details.  Steve Jackson (Sidney Poitier) is on vacation from his blue collar job when his best friend Wardell Franklin (Bill Cosby)  talks him into sneaking out late one night while the wives are sleeping to visit the legendary Madame Zenobia’s after hours joint.  Besides good hard liquor, there’s rumors of fancy women and illegal gambling which all turn out to be true. 

Once inside, Wardell ends up at the craps table where he hits a winning streak by playing along with a patron by the name of Leggy Peggy (Paula Kelly).   Right in the middle of this streak, the place is robbed by masked gun men.  Wardell is forced to turn over his winnings, Steve is forced to turn over his wallet.

The next day while reading his newspaper, Steve realizes that his ship has come in.  The lottery numbers he plays on a regular basis hit.  Steve and wife Sarah (Rosalind Cash) begin celebrating until Steve realizes that the winning ticket was in his wallet that was stolen in the robbery at Madame Zenobia’s. 

He enlists the help of  Wardell to find out who robbed the joint so that they can retrieve the winning lottery ticket.   Their first attempts don’t go so well.  They try just hanging out in seedy neighborhoods to get some information, but all it does is get Wardell arrested.  They then try to hire a private detective, Sharp Eye Washington (Richard Pryor), but as it turns out Washington is simply a con artist on the lam.

Their detective prowess next lands them in  the office of Congressman Lincoln (Roscoe Lee Browne), supposedly a man of the people, but he keeps a portrait of Richard Nixon on his wall when nobody’s looking.  He’s not much help to the guys until his wife shows up, who happens to be the one and only Leggy Peggy that had launched Wardell on his winning streak.  

She tells them to track down a hood by the name of Geechie Dan Buford (Harry Belafonte) and to locate another hood who goes by the name of Little Seymour (Harold Nicholas).  Later, they discover that Geechie Dan is at war with a mob boss called Silky Slim (Calvin Lockhart) who is trying to take over Dan’s territory, which in turn lands our two heroes in the middle of their dispute.  So who has the lottery ticket and how will the guys recover it?

To be honest, by the time you reach that point you probably aren’t really going to give a damn, because except for two or three scenes, the film is just not funny.  There’s a lot of talent involved, but most of it is wasted. 

Richard Pryor’s appearance is short lived, so don’t blink.  But this could be a good thing considering he’s ill used.  Strangely, he would practically reinvent the same type of  character two years later for Silver Streak.  The difference being that Grover is a million times funnier than  Sharp Eye Washington.  Granted, his screen time is about five minutes total here, but Poitier just as well had left it on the cutting room floor for what it’s worth.

Harry Belafonte’s thing  is to do a Marlon Brando Godfather impression,  which would be okay if you have your audience rolling in the aisles with laughter.  Instead the whole Brando Impersonation shtick just become tiresome after a few minutes.  It might have been a better idea to have Belafonte develop a unique character instead of a pale carbon copy of someone else that wouldn’t even make the grade in a Saturday Night Live skit.  At least not for as long as it goes on here.

What’s amazing to me  is that Bill Cosby just seems totally uncomfortable as if he’s unsure of himself.  For the most part, Director Poitier let’s Wardell carry the film and do his thing while Steve simply reacts.  And whether it’s the script or the direction, it’s hard to say.  But neither of them elicited so much as a faint chuckle from me.

At one point, when Steve and Wardell confront Little Seymour in a bar, Wardell does a long monologue, which Steve then lamely tries to imitate.  The problem is that the monologue wasn’t that good to begin with let alone have it repeated with Wardell coaching Steve on his delivery.  This is all followed by a big fight which involves some slapstick not worthy of the prowess of Larry, Curley and Moe. 

Poitier’s direction does nothing to lend a spark to the film either.  It’s pretty straight forward and workmanlike in a film that requires something more considering the weak premise it is based on.  It simply lacks imagination much in the way that the script lacks hilarity.

On the get it where ever you can bright side, Uptown is not exactly a total loss.  Paula Kelly and Roscoe Lee Browne are in fact outrageously funny and made me laugh out loud.  So if the Netflix envelope was talking about those particular actors, then yeah, I could go along with that.  But since they aren’t even mentioned in the description, you know this pair is not whom they were referring to.  When Leggy Peggy and Congressman Lincoln are around, the film comes to life for a few quick shining moments before the patient is then pronounced dead and unable to be resuscitated.

If Uptown Saturday Night shows up on Netflix Instant Watch, then I would recommend fast forwarding to the Paula and Roscoe scenes and skipping everything else.   It’s a shame they weren’t in a better film then this, or hell they should have just made a movie with these two characters.  I would have watched. 

I can’t really recommend Uptown on it’s entertainment value, but if you want to watch from a historical perspective regarding black cinema from the seventies than maybe that would be a reason to put it in your queue, or maybe if you want to watch the trilogy you’ll feel incomplete without it.  But as it is, I have no choice but to give this film a D, saved from total failure by the Congressman and Ms. Peggy.

A year later, Poitier and Cosby would team up again in this film which has a very clever title for the follow up.  Sort of like if at first you don’t succeed, try try again.  Sort of like practice makes perfect.  Sort of like once bitten twice shy.  Wait, that last one doesn’t work does it?  For the most part, Let’s Do It Again succeeds where Uptown failed.

The envelope only gives you basic details, hardly enough to make you want to put this in your Netflix/Qwikster/Whatever queue.  On top of that, the description gets it wrong.  That’s really a pet peeve of mine with Netflix/Qwikster/what was that stupid name again?  This happens way too often.  Granted, I’m not the world’s greatest movie expert, but if I were running a company I would make sure I would at least get the envelope right instead of having someone like me embarrass you with your inaccuracies.

First off, Clyde (Poitier) and Billy (Cosby) do not host the boxing match.  The boxing match takes place in New Orleans, and they  have nothing to do with “hosting” it.  It is in fact already a scheduled match between Bootney Farnsworth (Jimmie Walker)  and 40th Street Black (Rodolphus Lee Hayden) .  And second, they don’t recruit the hapless boxer, in the sense that he’s in on the plot.  Throughout the movie he’s never aware of his manipulation.  The envelope gives no details about how this boxer is to be manipulated which may seem like small potatoes to some, but it’s a very crucial plot point.  Never fear though, I’m here for you.  Because I care.  It’s all about you and your needs.  Are you buying that?  I didn’t think so.

Clyde and Billy head down to New Orleans with their wives Dee Dee ( Lee Chamberlin) and Beth (Denise Nicholas) in order to  find a boxing match they can fix, in addition to meeting the other criteria needed for the wacky plan to work.  They first must find a heavy underdog (Bootney) going up against an opponent (40th Street Black) with very long odds.  

Clyde, who learned how to hypnotize people in the army, must then put Bootney into a trance and convince him he’s the greatest fighter in the world.  Both Clyde and Billy, using funds they “borrowed” from the lodge then place huge bets on the underdog with the two main mob leaders in town, Kansas City Mack (John Amos) and Biggie Smalls (Calvin Lockhart). Biggie and K.C.  also happen to be bitter rivals much in the same way that Geechy Dan and Silky Slim (also played by Lockhart) were in Uptown Saturday Night.  But in this film, it plays out a lot better aided by the fact that we don’t have to put up with Harry Belafonte’s Don Corleone impersonation. 

Having a good idea is one thing.  Trying to implement it is another.  For one thing Bootney is well guarded in his hotel room.  Don’t know why that is since he’s such a crappy boxer and apparently in no danger from anybody unless it’s someone who got fed up with hearing him shout “Kid Dyn-O-Mite”.  But let’s not quibble over details. 

So getting to him and putting him under Clyde’s Evil Eye is rather tricky business that leads to more complications.  Other than that, it’s best for me not to give too much away.  Keep in mind though, just when you think the movie is about over it isn’t, because it’s never over until it’s over.  There’s a nice well played twist at the end that is sort of like putting the whipped cream and cherry on top of the ice cream sundae.

In Uptown, both Steve and Wardell had wives, but they were more or less window dressing.  In this film, they are actually an important part of the story and both of them have distinctly different personalities.  Clyde’s wife Dee Dee is your down home strait laced strait arrow gal.  Billy’s wife Beth is her opposite:  free wheeling and no holds barred.  In one scene in a fancy New Orleans restaurant, Beth and Clyde talk openly about their sex life  much to Steve’s delight and Dee Dee’s chagrin.  This one moment in it self is worth the rental, and  more fun than the entire hour and forty minutes spent on USN.  This 15 second clip will give you some idea as to what I’m talking about.

No doubt that some of you won’t even know who Jimmy Walker is unless you caught his act on TV Land or Nick at Nite reruns.  In the seventies, he starred as J.J.  in a family comedy called Good Times and stole the show out from underneath the two stars John Amos (who is also in this film) and Esther Rolle.  But too much of Walker’s  J.J. shenanigans can get on your last nerve.  And the earlier “Kid Dyn-o-mite” reference?  Witness it for yourselves.

Here he plays basically the same character, but not exactly the same.  J.J. was always brash and outgoing.  Bootney is shy and retiring, not good qualities when you’re a boxer trying to make it big.  After being hypnotized, he slips more into his J.J. persona and by golly it works.  Director Poitier obviously knew this as well and keeps Walker in check by trotting him out as Bootney just when the plot needs it and nothing more.  I’m grateful for that, but probably not as much as John Amos was. 

Speaking of TV characters, Denise Nicholas is as far removed from the do gooder teacher Liz McIntyre that she played in the show Room 222 as she could be.  Cosby and Nicholas are a perfect match .  There’s a reason Nicholas won three Golden Globe awards and she shows why here.  Unfortunately it always seemed as if the good stories were always going to student teacher Alice Johnson played by Karen Valentine.   And having seemingly stifled himself in the first film, Poitier loosens up this time around. 

He’s still the straight man for Cosby most of the time, but instead of just reacting to Cosby’s lines, this time he helps sets those lines up.  For his part, Cosby seems to have overcome whatever was holding him back as well and seems a lot more comfortable.  I really like this film.  In a way it reminds me of a film like The Sting.  It’s not always roll in the aisle type of hilarity although there are a few of those moments, but it stays amusing and unpredictable throughout.  Easily it is the best of this trilogy so I have no choice but to give a grade of B+.

A Piece of the Action is the third and final film in the Poitier/Cosby trilogy from the seventies, released two years after Let’s Do It Again.  But by my way of thinking, they should have done at least one more film.  I’ll explain why momentarily.

This film is quite a bit different from the initial two offerings.  For one thing, it would be difficult to label it as a comedy, or even a dramedy for that matter.  There’s very little humor on hand but before you go getting all pissy about it, I’m 75 per cent sure that there was never any intent to make this a laugh riot.  It starts out as more of an action/caper film than anything else, and in fact the two main characters, Manny Durrell (Poitier) ad Anderson (Cosby) don’t even know each other exist.

They are in fact thieves.   Dave is an accomplished cat burglar, and Manny is a con man.  Dave steals from the very rich, and gives unto himself.  Manny makes a big score conning mob boss Bruno (Titos Vandis) with help from some associates in particular one Bea Quitman (Frances Foster), important because she figures greatly in later developments.  

The opening sequences with Dave and Manny pulling off their cons and heists are particularly well done.  Unfortunately for them and for us, police detective Darth Vader Joshua Burke (James Earl Jones) has gathered enough evidence to put them both behind bars for about 30 years.  What exactly is this evidence and how did he get it?  I can’t answer that.  Not because it’ll give away part of the plot, but it’s because we’re never really told what it is that leads him to surmise who the two are. 

Maybe it’s not a big necessary detail that we need to know, but  a rather obvious plot hole that will bug the piss out of you especially in regards to Manny.  It would have been almost impossible for Burke or anybody else to know Manny was the one who pulled off the con since the police were never involved in any investigation or any funds reported stolen.  In other words, Burke would have had to have been part of the Psychic Friends Network or maybe an associate of Syliva Browne.  

Yes friends, the Psychic Network does live on and on and on via the internet, and you can track them down yourself if you are that gullible.  Minus Dionne Warwick of course, who quit the psychic business when the checks stopped rolling in.  Yes, you and I know PFN wasn’t around in the seventies and Ms. Browne didn’t make her big splash on TV until the nineties either.  But Burke didn’t know that and he could have communicated with them mentally over the space time continuum couldn’t he?  He seems to know everything else.  But hey, there was always The Not So Amazing Kreskin back then for him to buddy up with.  Oh horse poop, there I go getting way off track again.   Let’s see…..hmmmm….where was I?  Dave…Manning….con….heists…Burke…Okay, back on track.

Having retired from the police force, Detective Extraordinaire Vader Burke decides to use his information to blackmail both Manny and Dave.  Does he attempt to get the two crooks to pay him off in mucho dinero?  Nope.  Does he try to get Manny and Dave to work to together to pull off more heists and cons together, using their prowess to take out one underworld  criminal after another as sort of their own Mission Impossible duo? Nope, not that either.   Instead he forces them to give back to the community by working as volunteers for Lila French (Denise Nicholas) helping and aiding inner city kids to find jobs thus making the world a better place for them, and us, God, apple pie, and the United States of America.  Unfortunately though, it doesn’t necessarily make for a better movie.

Burke does all this in such a way that our two heroes don’t know who it is doing the  blackmailing.  But from the information that is provided to them, it is obvious that he has both Manny and Dave right where he wants them.  I think it’s called having them by the balls. 

At the school, they decide to split up.  Manny will stick around with the delightful young ones who have been assigned to the center by the juvenile courts as a last resort, and Dave will hit the streets trying to round up some employers stupid enough willing to take a chance on them.  And while doing these jobs, both will look for clues as to the identity of their blackmailing benefactor so they can get him off their case and go back to doing what they do best.

There’s probably another reason why Poitier gets the thrill of working with the troubled teens.  He’s been down this road before.  First, as one of them in The Blackboard Jungle, and after having been straightened out by Glenn Ford, hw went on to teach their British counterparts in To Sir With Love.   But the kids in those films seem like the Vienna Boys Choir when compared to the nasty bunch he gets saddled with here.

And while all of this is going on, Dave who is supposed to be using Lila to get information develops a crush on her.  Manny already has a girlfriend that he lives with, Nikki McLean (Tracy Reed).  But she’s here for two reasons.  The first reason is so that we can have a strange scene where her doting parents come to visit their daughter who is living in sin.  I think this is supposed to be the comedic portion of the movie for all those who entered the theater thinking they were going to get another film like Let’s Do It Again. And the second reason is to be there when the plot calls for it late in the film.

To add to Dave and Manny’s misery, especially Manny’s, Bruno has not given up on finding the person who conned him and took his money, and eventually he gets a lead which helps him close in on the culprit, that being Manny.  And Bruno is no fun loving Mob Boss like the ones in the previous movies.  This guy means business, and no Cosby monologue is going to discourage him in the least. 

To say this film is schizophrenic is an understatement.  What we have  are two entirely different films trying to mesh together, but it’s the old oil and water story.  You just can’t get those suckers to mix no matter what you do. 

We have the film where Manny and Dave are thieves and con-artists being chased down by the mob, while trying to locate the man who is blackmailing them.  And then we have the story of Manny and Dave trying to turn the young and the restless into Citizens of the Year. 

In fact the troubled youth story is a real downer most of the time.  There is one particularly cruel scene between a student, Barbara Hanley (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and the instructor Sarah Thomas (Hope Clarke) that is so intense in it’s cruelty that the film never really recovers from it.  It  makes one dislike these students to the point where we begin to not really care what the hell happens to them, and the only thing we really want from this point on is the Manny/Dave/Bruno/Blackmail plot.  As for the scene I’m talking about, you’re in luck.  Or maybe not, it depends on your feelings about it.  But someone did upload it to YouTube so decide for yourselves.

Sheryl Lee Ralph gets mean and nasty in A Piece of the Action

Remember when I said they should have made a fourth film?  This is what I meant by that.  If they wanted to make another film dealing with these kids, then they should have done that.  They had a good film going in the beginning, then did a 180 degree turn and tried to make it about something else while still keeping elements of the original idea going on the side.  Thus one story is nothing but a distraction from the other.  You can do things like this in a film, but when you make that spin, then your film has to go totally in that direction.  You can’t have it both ways.

Case in point, would be Hitchcock’s Psycho.  For the early part of the film we believe we are watching a film about embezzling.  Then, in one scene Hitchcock changes the game and makes the film about something else altogether, and that is what the film is about and it stays there for the rest of the movie.

In this film, they try to have their cake and eat it too.  Once the work at the center becomes part of the film, they should have either focused on that or not gone that route in the first place.  Blackboard Jungle is a good film because it has focus.  The same can be said of To Sir With Love.  Could you imagine Poitier’s Mr. Thackery taking a sabbatical in the middle of that film to go pull a heist?  Neither could I.   To make matters worse, after this scene and another one like it, they try to bring in Nikki’s parents for the previously mentioned comedy relief, and it just ends up being idiotic, stupid, as if they had spliced it in from some other film.  I’m not denying the well meaning intentions involved, or that the acting in the above scene is anything but excellent.  But like I said, maybe they should have done one more film instead of cramming all of their ideas into this one.

I can’t really fault any of the actors here.  They all do well, so I suppose I could fault  Poitier, who as a director should have recognized the problems with the script.  Or I can just blame the writers who weren’t sure what kind of a movie they wanted to make so we get this instead.  The film is certainly worth a rental.  You won’t hate it.  But you may start wishing for Manny and Dave to pull off another con or some big heist.  I never thought I would see the day that I wished for J.J. to make an appearance, and if you make me wish for that I have no choice but to give you my grade of  a C.   It’s a nice effort that ultimately fails.

But I’ll leave you with something that doesn’t fail and is pretty cool to boot.  The Staple Singers and their rendition of Let’s Do It Again.

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