Episode 1: Pilot

Nora Lin (Awkwafina) lives in Queens with her father, Wally (BD Wong) and her grandmother. (Lori Tan Chinn) Nora doesn’t have a job, and her room is a mess. But things are looking up, she got a job with a ride share company, and Nora’s friend, Chenise (Mekeda Declet) says she can stay with her. Are things turning around for Nora? Is she on her way to independence from her dad?

Slacker comedies are nothing new. Kramer was the king of the slackers in Seinfeld, and Chris Elliot played a newspaper boy living with his parents in Get A Life, so this is Awkwafina’s take on a slacker comedy, Awkwafina can be hit or miss, she was way over the top in Crazy Rich Asians, but she gave a sensitive and understated performance in The Farewell, so this tv show is anyone’s guess.

The first episode is very funny. She has to compete with her cousin, Edmond, (Bowen Yang) who she can’t stand. Her roommate is not who she appears to be, and she is a lousy driver. There is a universality to Nora, even though there are telltale signs of Asian overachievement lurking, Nora is someone everyone can relate to. Lori Tan Chinn is very funny as Nora’s grandma, but she has some touching dialogue as well. The surprising part of this comedy is how sincere the emotions are.

Episode 2: Atlantic City

Nora is talked into going on a bus trip to Atlantic City after her grandma gives her a guilt trip. While there. She runs into an old friend from her high school days, Melanie. (Chrissie Fit) How is Melanie doing? Grandma wants to have a quiet time in Atlantic City, does she get her wish?

Awkwafina almost doesn’t get caught up in the Asian gambling stereotype, but then she does. Both Nora’s storyline and grandma’s storyline are meandering, and they are ultimately pointless. This whole episode was not nearly as funny as the first one. Awkwafina seems to have fallen into another comedy writing trap, the precocious elderly person. Instead of having a precocious child saying all the smart, witty, outrageous things, an elderly person says those things. An elderly person saying and doing outrageous things may seem like a fresh twist, but it goes back to characters like Granny in the Beverly Hillbillies, or Sophia on the Golden Girls. Hopefully, Awkwafina will make her Grandma character multidimensional and not just a human punchline. She did a good job of humanizing all the characters in the first episode. Let’s hope the multidimensional characters continue in future episodes.

Episode 3: Savage Valley

Wally is tired of Nora’s video game obsession, so Wally and Grandma help Nora land a job as an assistant with a real estate friend named Nancy. (Deborah S Craig) Nora goes from slacker girl to overachiever with a little pharmaceutical help. What happens when the pills run out?

This episode has the feel of an after-school special. Remember kids, just say no to prescription drugs. The whole episode is predictable and not very funny. It’s somewhat strange that Nora is hanging out with kids a lot younger than her. Awkwafina is 32, and she’s playing someone who seems like a recent high school graduate, and playing video games with children. It’s not cool. Again, grandma is used as a human punchline. But BD Wong is consistently solid as Wally.

Episode 4: Paperwork

Nora looks to cash a check from Nancy and gets drowned in a sea of paperwork. When she tries to get into a cash payment only business, will it work or will Nora get in even deeper over her head?

This is more like what the show should be about a slacker facing difficulties with things that most people take for granted. This episode is reminiscent of the Honeymooners. Ralph always had good intentions, but the results didn’t always turn out well. The resolution of Nora’s issues showed Grandma’s sensitive side. Good writing.

Episode 5: Not Today

Nora decides to dye her hair, and finds out that cousin Edmond is back in New York. Wally goes to a single parent coping group, on the anniversary of his wife’s death.

The hair color routine is a comedy trope by now, but the rest of the episode is solid. Another strong performance by BD Wong as a parent dealing with grief and Edmond is humanized in this episode, not just made the object of scorn and jealousy. Good writing again, from Awkwafina’s staff writers.

Episode 6: Vagarina

After her New Agey aunt Sandra’s (Ming Na Wen) son Arlo (Zihan Zhao) turns hyper on sugary drinks, Nora suffers a vaginal injury which causes vaginal flatulence. Melanie’s new boyfriend, rap producer Rat Lung, (Peter Mark Kendall) wants to sample Nora’s sound, but says he won’t use It publicly.

This episode gets an A+ for creativity, but an F for too much information, and oversharing. No one needs to know what vaginal flatulence is, and other than Wally meeting Brenda in the middle of a bad Tinder date with another woman, this episode doesn’t advance the main storylines at all. Ming Na Wen is wasted in a superfluous role, as a hippie type. Arlo is a precocious kid, another sit-com trope.

Episode 7: Grandma Loves Nora

Edmond and Nora start out competing for Grandma’s affections, but when Edmond can’t come up with a new idea for his app, and does a lousy presentation, he turns to Nora for help. Does she help? Wally tries to get on Instagram to impress Brenda, one of them turns out to be embarrassing, what does Wally do?

This episode has two storylines which feed into each other well. There is nice synergy in the writing and that helps this episode. Everyone is working towards the same goal.

Episode 8: Grandma And Chill

While Nora is sick, Grandma tells the story of how she met Grandpa. In China, Young Grandma (Jamie Chung falls in love with Garbage Boy. (Simu Liu) After escaping China for America, Young Grandma falls in love with Doc Hottie (Harry Shum Jr.) When Garbage Boy reappears in America, who will Young Grandma choose?

This is a very funny episode with a Chinese history lesson thrown in for good measure. It has all the twists and turns of a good soap opera, with a few cliches, and many twists and turns. Jamie Chung is very good as the superficial Young Grandma, but Stephanie Hsu steals this episode as Grandma’s best friend Shu Shu.

Episode 9: Launch Party

Edmond and Nora hold a launch party for their new app Scubbr, which quickly goes south. But is there a silver lining? Wally has a bad first date with Brenda, but what does Grandma think is going on with Wally?

This was more pf a conventional episode, like Ralph as the Chef of the Future, on the Honeymooners, or Lucy doing Vitameatavegimin on I Love Lucy. And the bad first date is a standard comedy premise, but there is a twist in the Scrubr storyline, which leads directly to the final episode.

Episode 10: China

Scrubr is bought out by a Chinese company, and Nora goes to China without Edmond. In China, Nora meets Grace, (Celia Au) her translator and assistant. Meanwhile, back in America Grandma adopts an injured pigeon, which embarrasses Wally.

This was not the way to end a season. Grace was clingy in an uncomfortable way, but her devotion to Nora was sweet as well as sad, but the writers weren’t happy with Grace, so mid episode, they change her and not for the better. The grandma storyline was a sloppy metaphor for Nora leaving and coming home. The china storyline resolves itself messily, and the grandma storyline is overly sweet and sentimental.

My Impression of Season 1:

Season one of Nora from Queens is surprisingly funny. At its best, it’s laugh out loud funny with caustic wit, it even tries to be educational about Chinese culture, at its worst, it’s derivative, slow and unfunny. Luckily, for the most part, the good outweighs the bad in this show. It’s somewhat disappointing that the last two episodes are two of the weaker episodes. Awkwafina only wrote the pilot, but her staff writers are pretty funny, and very culturally attuned to the character’s voices. It was also disappointing that there was so much drug use, Nora smoked a lot of pot, but she also inadvertently used coke and Ecstasy and there’s nothing funny about hard-core drug use. There were also times where the show went for shock-jock humor, but for the most part, the writing was funny, and not shocking.

The characters are well-developed. Yes, Nora is a slacker, but she is really trying to be an average person, get a job, earn some money, it is that earnestness that honestly saves the character because if she was just on the couch smoking weed, Nora would be a boring one-dimensional character. The grandma character says and does a lot of outrageous things, but they also gave her a backstory, friends, rivals, and a good relationship with her granddaughter. The key character in this show is Wally, a hard-working straight-laced help desk guy, who tries to keep Nora on the straight and narrow while mourning for his wife, and trying to build a new relationship. It’s an important character in the show, because Wally is the one grounded in reality. The only recurring character that hasn’t been developed at all is Edmond, who is still as annoying as he was in episode 1.

The acting is great. Awkwafina is essentially playing herself, but she’s good at it, she’s done it in two movies and now her own tv show. She has obviously struggled cashing a check and keeping a job, so she draws on what she knows. But she tries to play a version of herself that’s younger than herself, playing video games with much younger kids, and talking about high school much too often. Her voice is somewhat grating, so she is smart enough to share this show with many talented actors. Lori Tan Chinn doe a fantastic job playing Nora’s grandmother, she could have easily been a one-dimensional wisecracking granny, but the writers were smart enough to give her a more three-dimensional character, complete with a backstory, and the viewer feels the sincere affection that she has for the Nora character, and that’s what makes Chinn’s performance complete. The best performance in Nora From Queens is by BD Wong, he injects a healthy dose of reality into Nora’s slacker life, and challenges her to do better. What Wong does better than that is convey a sense of loss over his wife, and they awkwardness of trying to meet someone new as a widow, it’s really convincing. If Nora From Queens was a network show or an HBO show, BD Wong would e up for an Emmy, he should be anyway, his comedic timing is flawless. The guest stars were ok, Ming Na-Wen is wasted as a flighty New Agey type, the writers should have written a better role for her. Jamie Chung fared better as Young Grandma, a spoiled little rich version of Nora’s grandma. Chung had a role with better writing and she made the most of it.

There were little to no directorial flourishes in this show. It’s a low budget comedy that aired on Comedy Cental, which means no money for visual trickery.

Nora From Queens: Hard to Ignora

Movie Review: Get Duked! (2019)

Posted: April 12, 2021 in Comedy

Three rowdy British high school students, DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneeja) Dean, (Rian Gordon) Duncan (Lewis Gribben) and a shy home-school student, Ian (Samuel Bottomley) are sent to the Scottish Highlands to compete for the Duke of Edenborough award. Ian thinks it would look great on his high school transcripts, but the other three just want to smoke, drink and have fun. DJ Beatroot fancies himself a rapper, Dean is a pot head, and Duncan isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Their teacher, Mr. Carlyle (Jonathan Aris) gives them a map and tells them to meet them at a designated campsite, but Dean uses the map as rolling papers and makes a huge joint. On their way to the campsite, they get shot at by someone dressed as the Duke of Edenborough (Eddie Izzard) starts shooting at the four boys. Somehow the panicked boys make it to the campsite, and Duncan suspects Mr. Carlyle, and calls the police. The local police department thinks the perpetrators are a terrorist drug gang who listen to hip hop. Can they find the real shooter before he kills the boys?

Get Duked aspires to be Shaun of the Dead, a vastly superior satire about a slacker, who springs into action when his favorite pub is under attack by zombies. It aspires to be a coming-of-age movie but the camaraderie of the four kids is an open question. It aims to be a satire of rural police, sort of a Highlands Hot Fuzz, but the barbs aren’t sharp enough. The writer tries to do a lot of retroactive exposition and revision to make up for earlier blunders in the script, but that rewrite is too little too late. Instead of the backing and filling at the end, there should have been a backstory about the Duke, and why he was the way he was. What Get Duked tuns out to be, is a stoner comedy about dumb guys doing dumb things an facing no consequences. There is nothing in this movie that Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke or the Harold and Kumar movies haven’t done first and better. And it breaks the cardinal rule of comedy, it just isn’t that funny.

The acting isn’t great. Eddie Izzard who was the only good part of The High Note, gave a flat, lackadaisical, uninterested performance. Viraj Juneeja overplays DJ Beatroot so badly that he tries to force himself into a starring role. His acting and comedic timing seems rushed, his rap skills are mediocre at best. Samuel Bottomley does his best with a poorly written character. Lewis Gribben plays a dumb guy quite affably. But no one really stands out in this film as particularly funny or likeable.

Director Ninian Dorf, who’s also the writer, tries mightily to add visual excitement to this film, like doing multiple crane shots and even a psychedelic scene, but what should have been the set piece, the confrontation between the boys and the Duke was filmed in the dark, making it hard for the viewer to see what should be the climax of the film. Dorf gets a lackluster performance from the biggest star in the film, and that’s inexcusable. And Izzard was an executive producer, which means he paid himself to give a lousy performance. Tobey Maguire was also a producer.

Get Duked! A Knight to Forget

Teenage high-schooler Tina Gray (Amanda Wyss) is having nightmares about a guy named Fred Kruger (Robert Englund) coming after her to kill her.  At a sleepover, Tina invites her boyfriend, Rod Lane (Nick Corri) and her best friend Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) and her boyfriend, Glen Lantz (Johnny Depp) to stay the night, because her nightmares are getting to her.  Nancy falls asleep and wakes up to hear Tina screaming, Glen and Nancy break Tina’s door down, and find Tina in a bloody heap, and Rod gone.  The police immediately suspect Rod, and Nancy’s father, Lieutenant Don Thompson (John Saxon) sets a trap for Rod, using his daughter as bait, and the police arrest Rod shortly thereafter.   

Everything should end after Rod gets arrested, right, but now Nancy starts having nightmares.  Nancy’s concerned mother, Marge, (Ronee Blakely) takes Nancy to a sleep clinic.  After some unexplained events occur at the clinic, Nancy presses her mother about the identity of Fred Kruger.  She adamantly denies knowing anything about Fred Kruger, but seems nervous about the whole subject.  Is Marge hiding something from her past? 

What distinguishes Freddy Kruger from other horror villains is that Freddy exists in the nether regions of a person’s subconscious.  It’s the psychological aspect of this film that adds suspense.  At its heart, Nightmare on Elm Street is a suspense film, that raises intriguing questions. Is this Freddy Kruger a manifestation of the stresses of teenage life, is he a manifestation of the teens lack of sleep, or is he real, and if he is real, how do the protagonists kill someone who attacks them in their dreams?  At its worst in’s a slasher film with buckets of blood, but unlike other horror films this one has a very interesting character at its center, and learning about Freddy is what makes this movie so entertaining to watch.  Nancy’s parents are typically oblivious, but there’s even a twist on that usual horror movie staple.  And Nancy realizes that she has to fight Freddy, real or imagined herself, and that leads her to be more independent than the other “scream queens” of the 1980’s.  It’s far from perfect, most of the characters are not developed, sometimes Nancy behaves older than her years, sometimes younger, but all in all it’s much better than the horror movie dreck that Hollywood turned out in that era. 

The acting varies greatly in this film.  Heather Langenkamp, who no one had heard of at the time is perfect as Nancy Thompson.  She plays Nancy with the perfect mix of innocence, and both mental and physical toughness.  She literally built a career playing Nancy Thompson.  This was Johnny Depp’s first movie role and he plays it straight, no accents no pirate costumes, he’s just Nancy’s jock boyfriend.  He does a pretty good job of holding the audience’s attention, with nothing really distinctive about the role. Robert Englund doesn’t have lots to saw in this movie, but his backstory is firmly established, and he has 6 more films to build the iconic Freddy Kruger character.  Ronnee Blakely doesn’t bring much to the role of Marge despite being nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the movie Nashville in 1975.  She reads the lines with no emotion, and that bland reading detracts from the importance of the character, and she is a pivotal character in this film.  John Saxon, plays the strong silent police officer, as he had in many 1970’s movies, he’s silent until he finds his daughter might get hurt then he erupts in a volcanic temper tantrum. 

Director Wes Craven doesn’t really make this an 80’s style slasher film.  He is more interested in blurring the line between reality and the dream world, so the viewer doesn’t know were reality ends and the dream begins.  Even Freddy emerges in one sequence with elongated cartoonish arms, an exaggerated reality, like Tim Burton would effectively do in his movies. The effect is to not really scare the viewer, but to make him or her afraid to fall asleep, which is almost Hitchcockian in its motivation.  The real genius of this film is that Craven created a horror movie icon on a shoestring budget of a million dollars. When he made 50 million dollars on a million-dollar budget, Hollywood was bound to come calling again.  And it did. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street: Glove to Glove Ya Freddy!

Alex Wheatle (Assad Shareef Mohammad. Sheyi Cole) has no idea who his parents are, and is raised by the state in Britain.  After a harrowing experience on foster care in Surrey, he begins to get a sense of himself and the Caribbean community in Brixton, when he moves into an apartment there.  He befriends Dennis Issacs (Jonathan Jules) and his girlfriend Dawn. (Fumilayo Brown-Olateju)  Dennis shows Alex the ropes on how to be cool in the Jamaican community, from how to walk to which music to listen to, Dennis even invites Alex to his mother’s house for a home cooked chicken dinner.   

Once comfortably ensconced in the community, Alex becomes a DJ, as part of the Crucial Rocker sound system, and he also becomes a small-time drug dealer.  Times were difficult in the 80’s for the black community in Brixton, and the combination of high unemployment and constant harassment by the police led to the Brixton riots, which Alex was sent to prison for.  Here, he meets a Rastafarian prisoner named Simeon, (Robbie Gee) Simeon has some important advice for Alex at a turning point in his life, does Alex take it? 

The story of Alex Wheatle is a compelling story to tell.  His upbringing in the British social services system could be a story in itself, his involvement in the Brixton riots could have been a movie in itself, Alex’s decision while in prison and going forward, but that’s where the film falls apart, and that’s mostly a function of the direction.  Read on for the description of the shortcomings of the direction. 

The acting us very good.  Sheyi Cole is excellent playing Alex, the fish out of water ward of the British state. Alex tries to be properly British; he tries to fit in with the Jamaican immigrants, the fish out of water feeling is perfectly illustrated when Alex spends Christmas with Dennis’ family. In the final analysis, Alex has to find his own identity, and because the story is truncated, the audience doesn’t see the complete arc of a performance.  Jonathan Jules also gives a strong performance teaching him the rules of the road about living in Brixton.  It’s an interesting mentorship, with Jules taking the dominant posture, but in a gentle way.  Robbie Gee also leaves a lasting footprint as Simeon, again trying o guide Alex gently, it’s a very forceful yet nuanced performance. 

Director Steve McQueen has at least three captivating storylines, and he shortchanges the audience on all of them.  He feels lie he must stay within the hour limit, and that restricts the narrative to the point where some of the most riveting aspects of Alex Wheatle’s life literally become a post-script in the movie.  When he decided to tell these stories, he should tell them fully and completely, or not tell them at all.  This is such a engrossing story with so many intriguing component parts, that it deserved better than to be cut off arbitrarily.  McQueen uses photos at some points, which seemed to minimize the impact of these events.  McQueen does several things well in this film, like lingering on Sheyi Cole’s face at key moments, to let the audience see his reaction.  Once again as  in Lovers Rock, music was a key part of the film, and McQueen integrates the music so seamlessly, that is becomes a subtext if the film. 

Alex Wheatle:   His life is whittled down to almost nothing. 

This is the story of the original discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in a cave by a group of Bedouin boys in Qumran in 1947, and how technology is being used to either debunk or verify the discovery of different fragments of the scrolls. 

Some viewers have no interest in archeology, some viewers may not care whether antiquities are real or being faked.  Some viewers may not care for religion of any kind, some viewers may be technology averse.  Put aside all those biases, because this episode raises some intriguing questions.  Who are the people buying the newer fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls?  Are these new fragments authentic or not?  Can new technology, not available in 1947 determine the authenticity of newer fragments, or uncover previously undecipherable fragments.  The answers to these questions are fascinating, like a detective story or mystery novel.  The real miracle, for those who believe in miracles, is how the original Dead Sea Scrolls survived for thousands of years before being discovered in 1947. 

Even if the questions above are not interesting, there’s a rogue’s gallery of antiquities salesmen, both current and past that are something like characters out of a movie.  And the people trying to verify the age of the antiquities in 1947 were worth a documentary of their own.  There is a cast of characters here both sincere and phony that make this episode off Nova worth watching.  If this still doesn’t pique your curiosity, think of Raiders of the Lost Ark.     This is the real-life Raiders. 

The direction is good because it packs a lot of information in a tiny amount of time.  The experts gathered really add a lot to the subject being discussed, And the viewers get to see the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and where new explorers are looking for new fragments today. 

Dead Sea Scroll Detectives:  Dig In. 

Leroy Logan (Nathan Vidal, John Boyega) works in a forensics lab, but dreams of doing something that will have a more dramatic and long-lasting effect on the community.  A friend of his and his Aunt Jessie, (Nadine Marshall) a police recruiter, try to get him to join the police force. At same time that Leroy was considering being a police officer, Leroy’s father, Kenneth, (Steve Toussaint) was arrested and beaten by British police.  Leroy quietly continues his police training, and becomes a ‘bobby’ on the police force, but he keeps his training a secret from his father.  Does Leroy’s presence make a difference on the police force?  What is Kenneth’s reaction to his son’s career choice? 

This is a true story, and that really adds weight to the story.  Leroy Logan honestly believed that he could change the institution from the inside.  What is exceptional about this movie is that there are no illusions about what happens to Leroy once he joins the British police force, just gritty reality, and that’s all it wants to be, a mirror to the society that it’s illustrating.  There are no climactic scenes either, in fact the movie ends quite anticlimactically.  What is intriguing to watch is the evolution of Leon’s dad when it comes to Leon’s occupation.  But if a viewer is coming into this movie expecting they usual shooting car-chase American cop film, Red White and Blue is a vast departure from that.  It’s a much more personal story, and that’s where this film excels.   McQueen the writer ducks no issues in this film, he raises them and addresses them also. 

The acting is extraordinary.  John Boyega gives Leroy a mostly quiet intensity, with a temper that builds until it erupts like a volcano, at the perfect times to show that he is not a perfect human being, who reacts to competing pressures in his life.  This is a compelling performance of a real person.  Also very good is Steve Toussaint as Leroy’s father Kenneth, who adds fiery outspokenness to his character.  In a smaller role, Assad Zaman as a Pakistani officer who sees many of the same issues that Leroy experiences, but reacts differently. 

What is wonderful about this film is that there are a lot of quiet moments in this film, where John Boyega gets to react to what is going on around him, and Director Steve McQueen just lets those moments happen, and then it’s on to the next scene.  The brevity of this film is also amazing, it is incredible that McQueen can pack so much serious content in such a short time.  The pacing is great, the performances are superb, this is the whole package.   

Boyega plays a copper with mettle. 

Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) are con artists, and are raising their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) to be a con artist too.  The couple usually does small time cons, like stealing gifts from the post office, and trying to pay rent with these gifts.  But they owe 1,500 dollars rent, and they need to come up with it fast.  They decide to take a trip that they won on one of their cons, and they try to pull the missing luggage con, and try to get the airline to pay for Old Dollio’s missing luggage, but that check might take six weeks to come, so Old Dolio and her parents have to keep conning. 

Robert and Theresa meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) on the plane ride and she is not dissuaded when she hears that they are con artists, in fact she wants in on the con.  Melanie introduces Robert and Theresa to some of the elderly people she knows, and Robert immediately goes for their checkbooks, which make both Old Dolio and Melanie uncomfortable.  But then, the airline check comes in and Old Dolio will give her the whole check if she says one word.  Instead, Melanie says the word, takes the check and heads for her apartment with Old Dolio.  Days later, after an earthquake tremor, Robert and Theresa want to mend fences, they bring Old Dolio presents and say they want to take her out to dinner.  Is there affection genuine or is this just another con job? 

It’s obvious that the focus of this movie is the lack of intimacy that Old Dolio has as a result of her relationship or lack thereof with her parents. But in making a story about emotionally distant characters writer Miranda July forgets that emotionally distant characters aren’t very likeable for the audience.  Whiters have made conmen likeable in the past, but July doesn’t even give Robert and Theresa one redeeming characteristic.  The emotionless cipher that results from these two parents is even less appealing to watch than the parents.  What’s most disappointing, however is the objectification of the Melanie character, from the way she dresses, to the proposals she hears, to the sexual tension as a subplot.  It was really unnecessary.  A person can gain emotional fulfillment without physical intimacy, but this film lacks the nuance to recognize that.  It’s about as subtle as a jackhammer. 

There’s an affectation that Even Rachel Wood adds to her voice, it’s partially robotic and partially Napoleon Dynamite, and that makes the character even less likeable, if that’s possible.  She’s saying with this performance ‘Look at me acting.’  That’s not the point of acting. Good acting is so natural that the viewer hardly notices it.  This was the opposite. There are a lack of good roles for older actresses, that would explain why Debra Winger would play such a nasty, vindictive, small character. Richard Jenkins is very good at playing mild, inoffensive, people, plays an offensive person so in love with his own explanations and justifications of everything, that it’s hard to watch.  Gina Rodriguez tries to give this death spiral of a movie some life, but her character’s inability to say no to anyone or anything limits the character’s effectiveness. 

The direction is poor, the pacing is slow, the viewer is bludgeoned with the same idea over and over again ad nauseum, and then the story zig zag into each character’s idiosyncrasies and that slows the pace even more, and if one is expecting something profound at the end of this muddled lump, don’t wait too long. 

Kajillionaire:  An air of pretentiousness wafts through it. 

Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) is bored with his royal trappings in Zamunda, the kingdom to which he is heir.  He is about to get married to Imani Izzi (Vanessa Bell) a woman he barely knows, who is willing to do anything Akeem commands.  He wants more of a challenge from a woman, he tells his father he wants to go to America to find a suitable wife. The King, Jaffe Jafar (James Earl Jones) thinks Akeem just wants to sow his royal oats, and so he lets him go to America for 40 days, 

Akeem goes to America and tells his servant, Semmi (Arsenio Hall) that he intends to find a wife, in Queens New York.  Akeem finds the worst apartment in Queens, because he wants a woman to love him for himself and not his wealth, and settles in with Semmi. iAfter striking out in the bar scene, Akeem and Semmi go to a Black Awareness program, where Akeem meets Lisa McDowell, (Sheri Hadley) who is doing fundraising for underprivileged children.  Akeem falls for her immediately, and gets a job as a floor cleaner in Lisa’s father Cleo’s (John Amos) fast food restaurant McDowell’s, but Cleo wants Lisa to marry Jheri Curl magnate Darryl Jenks. (Eriq La Salle) What chance does a poor floor washer stand against Prince Jheri Curl? 

There is some good material here.  A sweet love story, some good satire about McDonald’s, some very inside humor about a particular hairstyle in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and even a Trading Places reference, which John Landis also directed.  But all that talk about finding a girl who challenges Akeem is severely undercut by the actual selection process.  Akeem makes a face when he thinks that the African princess is heavy, he literally makes Imani bark like a dog to prove how subservient she is, Akeem rejects Patrice, Lisa’s sister, for no other reason than being dark skinned and sexually aggressive.  So, there are all these little hints about what kind of woman Akeem wants, and it’s not someone who challenges him, it’s a light skinned, skinny woman, who is on the rebound from a bad relationship.  The problems with the script are manifold, the blatant sexism and colorism is bad enough, but the script was redundant, and sometimes seemed like a series of disjointed comedy sketches instead of a movie.  The club scene could have been an SNL sketch, the barbershop scene may have been an SNL sketch, the black awareness program could have been a sketch.  It seemed whenever the writers were stuck for an idea, they’d say Eddie do a character. 

Eddie Murphy is a very talented stand-up comic.  But sometimes his talent gets the better of him.  In this film Murphy plays too many characters, when he plays the singer at the Black Awareness pageant, that’s one character too many.  Richard Pryor did multiple characters much earlier and much better in Which Way Is Up.  At least Murphy has talent, Arsenio Hall plays what he is in real life, a hanger on, a friend of the star.  Thar’s how he got his talk show, that’s how he got this role, sure he does some voices, but he is Semmi in real life.  Some of the casting was inspired.  Who else could play an African King but James Earl Jones, that voice oozes regality.  John Amos is hilarious as the owner of a McDonald’s rip-off restaurant called McDowell’s.  Calvin Lockhart had a small role a General Izzi, but both Lockhart and Amos played gangsters in Let’s Do It Again, so it was nice to see them on-screen together again.  Shari Headley was pretty good as Lisa, but her character was kind of bland.  Allison Dean gave the role of Patrice, a lot of energy, and Patrice seemed like a more interesting character, but the script disposes of her quite neatly.  My sympathies to Vanessa Bell, who had to literally bark like a dog for two minutes on the screen, she later said colorism was the reason that she didn’t get the Lisa role.  Given how Allison Dean’s role was handled, it gives Bell’s claim more credibility. Proving he’s in every movie ever made since 1988, Samuel L Jackson has a bit part. 

The direction was horrid.  The pacing was incredibly slow.  It took 45 minutes for Akeem to meet Lisa.   That’s the crux of the movie.  Here’s a theory of why this movie is so slow.  Director John Landis had a huge star with an equally huge ego, so Landis just let Murphy do what he wanted, he wanted 3 bathers, he got three bathers, he wanted three flower petal ladies, he got three flower petal ladies.  But appeasing an actor, even one as popular as Eddie Murphy was in 1988, is not the same as making a cohesive movie.  So what results is a bloated, lumbering film that should have been a love story but became much more, and not in a good way.  There is no way that this movie should be nearly two hours long, but Landis’ inability to control the narrative, or his stars, turns this into an undisciplined work that doesn’t age well.  He doesn’t control Murphy or Hall, and they run roughshod over the other actors in the film.  Landis seems to have used kid gloves on John Belushi too, and the resultant messes, Animal House and Blues Brothers were largely unfocussed disjointed movies.  Animal House gets away with its lack of focus, because it’s about fraternity life, but the Blues Brothers is simply unwatchable. 

Coming To America:  Not the Lion King, Instead The Lyin’ Prince. 

A teen named Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) who loves horror movies is convinced his new next-door neighbor, Jerry Dandridge, (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire.  Charley’s girlfriend Amy, (Amanda Bearse) his mother, Judy (Dorothy Fielding) and his best friend Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) are all skeptical. But, just after Jerry moves in, a number of women are murdered, and Charley is sure he’s seen Jerry’s roommate, Billy Cole (Jonathan Stark) carrying a coffin with Jerry.  Charley tries to enlist a police detective, Detective Lennox (Art Evans) to try to help catch Jerry.  Unfortunately, the detective is as dubious about Charley’s claims as everyone else seems to be.   

With nowhere else to turn, Charley turns to late night horror host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell) to try to convince him that Jerry is a vampire.  Peter thinks Charley is crazy, but Peter is also down on his luck, having just been fired from his fright Night tv gig.  So, after being bribed by Amy, he agrees to try to convince Charley that Jerry is not a vampire.  Just as he is about to leave, Peter sees something that may change his mind about Jerry.  What is it?  Does Peter finally help Charley?  Is Amy safe from Jerry’s charming personality?   

With movies like Halloween, and Friday the 13th dominating horror movies in the 80’s, Fright Night would have been easy to miss.  There are a lot of similarities to standard horror films and even standard vampire movies, but there are elements that distinguish this movie from the run of the mill vampire film.  First, Peter Vincent is a satire of Peter Cushing, horror actor in the British Hammer studios movies.  Also interesting is how Jerry tries to win both Amy and Ed over to his side, with an interesting wrinkle about Amy thrown in.  The most interesting aspect of this film is the role of faith, both in believing that vampires are real, and believing in the power of the tools to destroy them.  That is something that’s never been explored in vampire films.  There was a sequel to the original, there was a remake, and a sequel to the remake, and none of them were as good as this movie.   

As good as the script is, there are some cliches.  The first victim is a prostitute, Hollywood’s favorite profession.  Two of the other victims are black, following an age-old horror movie trope.  Finally, the teen characters are stock 80’s characters.  The hero, who no one believes, the damsel in distress, and the outcast.  And the adults, who should take the hero] seriously, dismiss his claims without even checking them. 

The acting was impressive, especially by two of the actors.  Chris Sarandon plays Jerry with equal parts charm and ominous foreshadowing. and what makes his performance effective is that the ominous part of his performance was also laced with charm.  Roddy McDowell is great in his role, as Peter Vincent, washed up horror actor, desperately trying to hang on to whatever semblance of fame he’s got left.  Does he become the hero he played in those movies?  The rest of the cast plays standard teen roles.  William Ragsdale plays the teen, who no one believes, and who has to both fight the vampire, and protect his girlfriend and mother from the good-looking guy next door.  Amanda Bearse plays the love interest, and would later go on to fame in Married With Children, and Stephen Geoffreys plays the nerdy outcast.  The teen roles are pretty standard issue. It’s really Sarandon and McDowell who carry this film. 

The direction is good, it keeps the narrative and action going, while relying on a relatively few special effects, compared to today’s CGI extravaganzas.  The director lets the dramatic tension rise to an exciting climax, and ends the proceedings fittingly.  He gets great performances from Sarandon and McDowell.  The director gets decent performances from the 20 something actors playing teens.  The one aspect of this movie that sticks out like a sore thumb is the background music.  It is cheesy.  It sounds like it was played on a cheap Casio keyboard. The best background music is one the viewer doesn’t notice, or in horror films heightens the tension, this music does neither. 

Fright Night:  Bloody Good! 

In London, in 1980, two friends Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) and Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) sneak out of their home to attend a house party.  After a little dancing and singing, Martha meets Franklyn (Michael Ward) and obviously wants to get to know him better.  Patty is not as impressed by Franklyn’s friend Reggie’s (Francis Lovehall)  come on lines, and leaves the party.   Martha is briefly perturbed by Patty leaving the party, and Franklyn’s nickname for Patty, beef Patty, but her pursuit of Franklyn continues. 

Later, Martha goes outside and witnesses something truly distressing.  What happens next?  Does she take steps so stop the disturbing situation? Does she leave the party?  How does the night end for Martha? 

Lovers Rock is a form of reggae music that gained popularity beginning in the 1960’s, so this movie is essentially an homage to Lovers Rock music, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  If Steve McQueen wanted to make a lighthearted movie about music and house parties, he could have done that very easily, but the script which he co-wrote, brings up all of the smoldering tensions between the races and among the partygoers and then refuses to address them.  Why bring up these situations, only to sweep them under the rug?  It would have been a far more interesting movie if the writers had examined these tensions in detail.  Instead, the viewer is left with little character development, little plot development and little reason, besides physical attraction, for Martha and Franklyn to be interested in each other.  It was bad enough that they wrote Patty out of the script completely, to raise and then ignore serious issues is indefensible. 

The acting wasn’t bad, given the paucity of character development in the script.  Michael Ward plays Franklyn as part lover man, part protector man, if he had added a little sensitivity to the character, it would have been a well-rounded performance, but he played Franklyn as if his only goal was to get Martha in bed.  Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn plays Martha as someone who’s pretty familiar with the ways of the world, for someone who is supposed to be a teenager and religious.  The other performances are not worth mentioning, because the characters were too inconsequential to matter. 

Steve McQueen is a good director, 12 Years A Slave is a great movie, Widows not so great, but in this movie, he ignores the narrative, he ignores the character development, and concentrates on the visual and auditory aspects of Love Rock reggae.  McQueen seems to concentrate on the dancing between Martha and Franklyn, and showing repeated close-ups of them dancing becomes lascivious and voyeuristic.  Concentrating solely on the dancing becomes gratuitous and unnecessary.  Also, the repeated use of a religious symbol should be treated with more respect than as a punchline to a joke. The music is great, but it dominates the story and shouldn’t. 

Lovers Rock; McQueen should have quit the Silly Games and made a serious film.