COMING 2 AMERICA (2021)

March 5, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The wait was 54 years for MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018) and 35 years for BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and it’s been almost 33 years since John Landis directed Eddie Murphy in COMING TO AMERICA (1988). So while it’s an unusually lengthy wait for a sequel, it’s certainly not unprecedented. Director Craig Brewer is fresh off a fantastic collaboration with Eddie Murphy in DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (2019), and the writers include Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield, who were both involved in the original COMING TO AMERICA (plus other Eddie Murphy projects), and Justin Kanew and Kenya Barris (“Blackish”).

The film opens with Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) and his wife Princess Lisa (Shari Headley) being greeted in the morning by their three daughters who wish them a happy 30th wedding anniversary. If you recall from the original, Akeem met Lisa on his eventful visit to Queens, NY. Her father Cleo (a returning John Amos) gave Akeem a job at the McDowell’s (not McDonalds) fast food restaurant he owned.

A basic synopsis of the story this time is that King Jaffe Joffer (90 year old James Earl Jones) is near death, which would mean Akeem would take the crown of Zamunda. A brewing conflict involves General Izzi (Wesley Snipes taking over for Calvin Lockhart who passed in 2007) who threatens violence if Akeem doesn’t allow Izzi’s goofball son to marry Akeem’s eldest daughter Meeka (KiKi Layne, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, 2018), who wants nothing to do with him … but does have her sights set on being next in line for the throne after her father. A film about Meeka could be interesting on its own. Of course, Zamunda law requires a male heir, and that’s the final kicker, as Akeem learns he has an illegitimate son conceived from a drug-fueled episode during his previous trip to Queens.

The royal jet whisks Akeem and his trusty sidekick Semmi (Arsenio Hall) back to Queens, where after a trip to visit with all the old characters from the neighborhood barbershop, they track down Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, 2018), son of Mary Junson (Leslie Jones). A flashback gives us context to Mary and Akeem’s moment of passion. It’s at this point where we also meet Lavelle’s Uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan). The Queen’s clan then heads back to Zamunda.

While there is a story, this is not a movie in the traditional sense. Instead it’s a nostalgic trip for a big chunk of the cast, as well as for the target audience. An abundance of cameos will keep viewers on their toes, and any movie that features two of the greatest movie voices of all-time, James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman, deserves extra credit. For me, there were no big laughs; however, I enjoyed a few good chuckles … the best being “Idiot Amin” (your ears have to work fast in the barbershop). The homage to TRADING PLACES was a nice touch, as was a particular finger wag, and a joke about sequels. It seems odd (given the title) that only a very small percentage of the story takes place in America, but I’m sure many will enjoy the outtakes over closing credits, and a surprise musical bonus after that. Also worth noting is that this sequel gets a PG-13 rating versus the R-rating of the original.

Amazon Studios will exclusively release COMING 2 AMERICA globally on Prime Video March 5th, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER

 


UNCUT GEMS (2019)

December 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s debatable whether this movie should be labeled an indie crime thriller or a ‘Scared Straight’ session for gambling addicts. Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie are filmmaking brothers who seem to specialize in adding a frenetic pace to the lives of characters who consistently make bad decisions. Their excellent 2017 film GOOD TIME (starring Robert Pattinson) set the tone for their latest, featuring an Adam Sandler performance unlike anything we’ve previously seen from him.

After a brief prologue at an Ethiopian mine, we are dropped right into Howard’s world. Well, more specifically, we find ourselves on the camera end of Howard Ratner’s colonoscopy, while also seeing the vibrant glow of the rare opal extracted from that opening mine. Remarkably, the colonoscopy may be Howard’s (and our) most relaxing moment of the movie. The character of Howard is based on a guy the Safdie brothers’ dad worked for in the Diamond District when they were growing up. He’s played here by Mr. Sandler, who delivers a performance so memorable that we now can’t imagine anyone else in the role.

Here is what we learn about Howard: he’s arrogant and foolish and energetic and hopeful. He lives life on the edge … or perhaps he’s already tipped. He’s a Jewish jeweler based in inner-city Manhattan, and as the film begins, he owes a lot of money to someone who has hired goons to collect. Howard has an irascible wife Dinah (Idina Menzel, Elsa’s voice in FROZEN) who is fed up with his antics … one of which is his employee/mistress Julia (newcomer Julia Fox). Howard has an insatiable gambling addiction and he’s always on the brink of a life-changing big score or a colossal failure that could cost him everything. He’s a hustler who has to move faster each day to prevent the collapse of his house of cards: sports bets, pawns, loans, lies, and empty promises.

So if you think you now have a feel for this, I can assure you that you are mistaken. The frenetic pace is relentless to watch. We kind of like Howard, but yet, we want nothing to do with him. His latest scheme involves the expectation that the rare opal will solve his many financial woes. In the meantime, his business associate Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) brings him a high profile client … NBA player Kevin Garnett. The film looks and feels like a gritty 1970’s flick, but it’s based during the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and Garnett plays himself (and quite well). Garnett borrows the opal for good luck and that’s when all ‘heck’ breaks loose. Also in play here is Howard’s rotten brother-in-law (Eric Begosian), to whom he also owes money. Adding even more NYC flavor are Judd Hirsch, John Amos, and sports radio host Mike Francesca, as Howard’s bookie.

Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) provides an electronic score that helps ensure we are never comfortable watching what is unfolding, and cinematographer Darius Khondji (EVITA) keeps his camera in constant motion – just like the characters. Production Designer Sam Lisenco creates Howard’s world through the jewelry shop, the house, the apartment, and especially that back office. Set Decorator Kendall Anderson wins a place in my heart for the Pete Maravich poster.

The Safdie brothers co-wrote the script with their editor Ronald Bronstein (who also worked on GOOD TIME), and afterwards you’ll find yourself going back through all the poor choices made by most every character. The brilliantly sustained level of uneasiness includes a segment featuring The Weeknd, and one revolving around a school play for Howard’s daughter. The Safdie style is present throughout, and most conversations are loud and heated and threatening. If you are the type that needs at least one likable character, or a serene environment, or respectful adult conversation, you are out of luck here. Howard is an exhausting character in an exhausting story within an exhausting movie … just as it was intended.

watch the RED BAND trailer (PROFANITY WARNING):