Yeah this probably isn't much of a revelation by now, pumpkins, but I don't always go in lockstep with other critics. After all, not only do I own a copy of Pyun's "Down Twisted", but I'm one of the sixteen people in the English-speaking world who enjoyed "Hudson Hawk". Bizarre, huh?
I don't really lose any sleep over this, but admittedly I ask myself if there's any legitimacy to being a film critic given the sort of tastes I have. Putting it another way: what the tarblinkin' bazfaz makes my views deserving of any sort of consideration? As always I stress that my opinions . . . my likes and dislikes . . . are simply that. Mine. What I attempt to do here is provide information on movies, as well as something of a justification to back my views up. I can't just say "see this" or "ignore that" and let it go; I have . . . rather, I want to expound. Maybe entertain.
Anyway, to illustrate the above point, I offer up Eddie Murphy's 1989 film "Harlem Nights". Quite a number of critics stood shoulder to shoulder in panning this film (including Gene Siskel, to which I say "Sorry, Gene").
(Not that I'm really worried about being dropped off of the invite list for Siskel's New Year's Eve do, but you can never tell.)
But here's where I want to point out something interesting. "Harlem Nights" was dumped on by most of the professional critical community. And yet . . . and yet . . . the film (which had a budget of thirty million dollars), pulled in over twice that much at the box office domestically, and it scored over $95 million worldwide.
Pumpkins! What conclusions do we draw from this?
We conclude that Uncle Mikey already has an idea and why the frickin' heck doesn't he just get to it instead of playing to the gallery?
Okay (but I bet you wouldn't treat Rod Steiger like this). I'm risking oversimplifying, but here goes. The difference is that the rank and file of professional film critics are looking for Great Cinema, whereas I just want a good time. You see, I suffer from a rather peculiar affliction. When I read a book, or listen to music, or see a movie, I'm not looking to bond with artistic immortality. I just want to be entertained, and this puts me at considerable odds against many other critics.
Oversimplification, like I said. I'm pretty certain not all critics are as hagridden by elitism as I'm probably thinking. But haven't there been times when your opinion has differed from the critics? The good Lord knows at least some of you have parted paths with me on occasion. Is it all that unusual then for the critics to think one way, and the public to think another?
Yeah, and I see some of you glancing at your watches and thinking you've got to go pick up Baby Dumpling from her Fashionista workshop and Will I Please Get A Move On?
This was Eddie Murphy's only directorial effort, and right off the bat I want to say that it's not my intention to spend the entire column dissecting Mr. Murphy's career to date. We are all aware that, with the exception of his voice work in animated features, his recent film work has pretty much sucked pond bottom and he enters that rather unique collection of talented performers who need to put more effort into choosing projects.
Murphy certainly isn't going to be mentioned in the same breath as John Ford, Martin Scorsese or even Ray Kellogg. But I was amused by "Harlem Nights" the first time I saw the film, and it grows a bit more on me with each subsequent viewing. Putting it another way: if I had the money I'd consider bankrolling Murphy on a few more projects with him as director just to see if he improves.
Of course, if I had the money . . .
(No. Forget it. We've already toured Tangent City once too often tonight.)
I'll get to some scenes I feel warrant particular mention, but I want to generalize a bit more. And don't moan. All critics do this. With "Harlem Nights" Murphy scratched an itch to do both a period piece and work alongside Richard Pryor. In the late 1930s Sugar Ray (Pryor) is running a successful Harlem nightclub, assisted by his adopted son Quick (Murphy). Bugsy Calhoun, a local gangster, notices the amount of money Sugar Ray is bringing in and decides to take over with the help of local corrupt police officers. Outgunned, Sugar Ray decides to strike back by organizing a scheme to steal a substantial amount of proceeds from a prize fight from Calhoun.
Obviously we're not dealing with Vladimir and Estragon beneath a tree here. On the one hand I give Murphy props for attempting a period piece (and, to my way of thinking, managing nicely. In fact, the Costume Design for the film was the only Oscar nomination it received). On the other hand, Murphy's period research wasn't quite extensive enough. The dialogue of his characters is sprinkled with numerous anachronisms. But if I was to burn "Harlem Nights" on historical inaccuracy then, in all fairness, I'd have to throw quite a few other films on the fire. With apologies to Yoda, sometimes the simple act of trying covers a multitude of sins.
Besides, whereas a lot of characters in the film are predictable, they're at least entertaining. And there were a few interesting surprises. Richard Pryor, for instance, goes through the film in a manner considerably subdued from the way his fans prefer to remember (but, in fairness, his mojo had taken some severe hits). As Sugar Ray it almost becomes difficult to imagine him as possessing the stones to establish and maintain a successful nightclub. That is, until a scene later on in the film when Murphy is loudly declaring how he is going out for personal revenge upon Calhoun. Then Pryor brings Murphy firmly back into line with a rather well-placed speech which ends with "I'm not gonna let you do that to yourself. I'm not gonna let you do it to me. 'Cause they kill you, they're gonna have to kill me. 'Cause I'm gonna kill them". A consummate comedian, Pryor delivers these lines with just a touch of frosty steel, and this one scene makes up for "Superman III".
(And here I want to applaud Berlinda Tolbert. As Sugar Ray's wife Annie she isn't given all that much to do. But she makes the most of what she has, including a nice Mae West riff.)
In "Harlem Nights" Eddie Murphy is, of course, playing Eddie Murphy (just like Burt Reynolds plays Burt Reynolds, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Segal plays a Lincoln Log). But Eddie Murphy in this film is several steps better than, say, Eddie Murphy in the abysmal "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" (or the equally abysmal "I Spy"). He obviously took the opportunity to tailor the role for a decent fit and manages to keep from going over the top (imagine Axel Foley in a better suit . . . and give the man his due. Murphy sets off a suit rather well. Nicer than, say, Alec Baldwin in "The Shadow". And Murphy at least delivers lines better than Baldwin).
(Yeah, I know. No big effort. Be nice.)
Speaking of predictable characters, Redd Foxx could've just about phoned his role in. Which isn't altogether a bad thing depending on how well you enjoy Redd Foxx. Here he plays a croupier at Pryor's nightclub who possesses severe vision problems (or, if you prefer, he plays Fred Sanford in better clothes and without the language restrictions of commercial television. If that doesn't seem like your particular brand of vodka, help yourself to as much food as you'd like etc. etc.). I of course understand the theory behind comic relief, as well as how hit or miss the concept is sometimes executed.
The rest of the cast comes off nicely (as well as in varying degrees of predictable. Just remember that this is a situation which goes back to S.Z. Sakall, Rudolph Valentino and others, so Murphy didn't invent this). One of my favorite movie heavies, Michael Lerner, manages a watchable performance as the calculatingly brutal Bugsy Calhoun. Assisting him is Danny Aiello, here providing a snappy turn as the corrupt police detective Phil Cantone. No surprises there. On the much nicer side is Jasmine Guy, here playing Dominique La Rue: Calhoun's femme fatale (a role she executes with the cold beauty and sensuality of a coral snake). Her appearances onscreen automatically draw all eyes as she projects a regal aura worthy of the halls of Troy. In fact, thinking over a lot of this I notice where Murphy tended to depend upon his actors, more than cinematographer Woody Omens, to generate attention in the film. In itself that's not necessarily a bad thing, but I felt Omens could've done a bit more on his part to carry the film (he was cinematographer for "Coming to America", which certainly had better strictly visual moments, so perhaps this can be entirely laid at Murphy's feet).
Arsenio Hall's star was very much on the rise when "Harlem Nights" came out. In the film he has considerably less to do than his performance in "Coming to America", but it's a watchably bizarre little scene as Hall plays a constantly crying character who suspects Quick of killing his brother (played by Thomas Mikal Ford, is always laughing). In a scene lasting almost three minutes, Hall and his henchmen corner Murphy on a street and try to kill him. Both the action and the dialogue (especially Hall's lines) make for one of the better slapstick moments of the film, and it's a nice piece on Murphy's part as director.
Another nice part comes a bit earlier and involves Della Reese as the madam who runs the brothel operation of Pryor's bar. Reese is one of those performers who'll deliver when the roads are flooded and a blizzard is coming, and she manages to steal practically every scene she's in. Here she gets in an argument with Murphy over brothel profits (have any of you ever considered the financial ins and outs of a brothel?), and the rather spirited exchange of lines soon leads to a hilarious fight out in an alleyway. I know it's sort of difficult to describe a vicious knock-down drag-out fight between a man and a woman as "hilarious", but Murphy and Reese manage to nicely get away with it. Once again Murphy is no Sidney Lumet, but he shows he can engineer a proper comedic scene given sufficient talent to play with.
No, "Harlem Nights" may not be remembered fondly when critics get together. On the other hand, there's the old saw on how a critic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. We may yet all live long enough to see Murphy's single directing effort gain sufficient value to successfully outbid the opinions of his detractors.