Film Review: Coming to America (1988)

Also known as: The Quest (working title)
Release Date: June 26th, 1988 (Beverly Hills premiere)
Directed by: John Landis
Written by: David Sheffield, Barry W. Blaustein, Eddie Murphy
Music by: Nile Rodgers
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, John Amos, Madge Sinclair, Shari Headley, Paul Bates, Eriq La Salle, Frankie Faison, Vanessa Bell, Louie Anderson, Allison Dean, Sheila Jackson, Jake Steinfeld, Calvin Lockhart, Samuel L. Jackson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Cuba Gooding Jr., Don Ameche (cameo), Ralph Bellamy (cameo)

Eddie Murphy Productions, Paramount Pictures, 116 Minutes

Review:

“Do not alert him to my presence. I shall deal with him myself.” – King Jaffe Joffer

I’ve reviewed a lot of films lately that I know inside and out but hadn’t seen in their entirety in well over a decade. This is one of those films and after rewatching it, I realized how much I missed the good feelings that this generates, as well as how infectious Prince Akeem’s optimism is. This is really something that I hope is not lost in the sequel, which comes out in a few months.

At it’s core, this is a modern fairytale romance. While it doesn’t feature magic and mythic creatures, it does feature a great quest that sees its protagonist travel to a strange, foreign land in an effort to find treasure.

This treasure is his true love and in seeking her out, he defies his father, the King of Zamunda, as well as centuries of tradition. But in the end, love conquers all and this film conveys that message so splendidly that I feel like it’s impossible not to adore this motion picture.

Eddie Murphy is at his absolute best in this classic but his performance is maximized by Arsenio Hall, his real life best friend and a guy that plays off of him so perfectly well that it feels like they’ve been a comedy team for years when this is actually, their first movie together.

Beyond the two leads, this film is perfectly cast from top-to-bottom. It’s frankly an all-star cast that features a lot of the top black talent of the time, as well as Louie Anderson in what’s still his most memorable role.

I love the scenes with Murphy and John Amos, as well as the ones with his storyline father, James Earl Jones. Murphy holds his own alongside these legends and this is the one film where he really proves that he is the prime time talent that most assumed he was.

Also, this is the first picture where Murphy, as well as Hall, play multiple characters. This worked so well that it would go on to be a trope in several Eddie Murphy movies in the ’90s and beyond. I can only assume that many of these extra characters will also make their returns in the upcoming sequel. I hope we see the old guys from the barber shop again, even though it’d be shocking if they were still alive 33 years later.

The most important thing that needed to work in this film was the relationship that develops between Akeem and Lisa. It’s a great, simple love story and the two had dynamite chemistry and the emotion of their best scenes shined through, making this a much better picture than it really needed to be.

One thing that really jumps out, that I didn’t notice or appreciate until now, is the music. Nile Rodgers orchestrated an incredible score full of memorable pieces that make certain scenes and sequences, magical. In fact, his King Jaffe Joffer theme is so damn good it’s iconic in my book.

All in all, this is a film where everything went right and I feel as if it exceeded the expectations that even its producers had. John Landis was truly a master of ’80s comedy and this is one great example of how good of a comedic director he was.

As much as I have always loved this movie, I don’t think that I ever had the appreciation that I have for it now. It’s a pretty close to perfect romantic comedy, which is a genre I’m not a massive fan of. But when you make one so great, the genre doesn’t matter and the end result is something that far exceeds the label of “chick flick”.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other John Landis comedies, as well as Eddie Murphy’s ’80s and early ’90s films.

Film Review: Cat People (1982)

Release Date: April 2nd, 1982
Directed by: Paul Schrader
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen, Alan Ormsby
Music by: Giorgio Moroder, David Bowie
Cast: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O’Toole, Ruby Dee, Ed Begley Jr., Frankie Faison, John Larroquette

RKO Radio Pictures, Universal Pictures, 118 Minutes, 93 Minutes (TV cut)

Review:

“Oliver doesn’t love you. He loved the panther. He wants you because he fears you. Let Alice have him. She thinks his fear is courage. And he thinks his fear is love. Well, they were made for each other.” – Paul Gallier

It’s probably strange that I had never seen this until now. I grew up in the ’80s on a steady diet of horror and fantasy and in the time since, I’ve adored the original Cat People series of films put out by RKO Radio Pictures and producer Val Lewton in the 1940s.

This stars Malcolm McDowell, one of my all-time favorite actors, especially in darker roles, as well as Nastassja Kinski, daughter of Klaus Kinski, who enchanted me in the Wim Wenders masterpiece, Paris, Texas.

The cast is rounded out by John Heard, Annette O’Toole and smaller roles for Frankie Faison, Ed Begley Jr. and John Larroquette.

Cat People‘s plot is very similar to the film it’s a remake of but it’s a much darker twist on that film and it also explores the mythos quite a bit more. It also adds in a steady helping of gore and eroticism. I wouldn’t quite call this exploitation but it’s probably as close as “high art” can get to that.

The cinematography is haunting and effective and director Paul Schrader did a great job of staging and capturing just about every scene and shot in the film. It certainly looks incredible and the atmosphere really becomes a character within the picture.

Overall, this is pretty good but I did find it a bit slow at times. But almost everything in it feels necessary and I can’t imagine how disjointed the 93 minute cut of the film must feel. Hopefully, those who have judged this harshly in the past didn’t watch the shortened version without realizing that there was a more developed version of the movie.

I really liked the characters in this and how each one felt like they were alone in their own way, exploring and discovering parts of themselves where the overlap of knowing one another created a dangerous situation for all parties involved.

Ultimately, though, the real highlight was getting to see the werepanther transformation. The effects worked extremely well.

All in all, this was a cool movie that was made even cooler by the use of different versions of David Bowie’s “Cat People” mixed with interesting and moody cinematography.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: other were-creature movies from the time like An American Werewolf In London and The Howling, as well as the film it is a remake of and it’s sequel/spinoffs from the ’40s.

Film Review: Freejack (1992)

Release Date: January 17th, 1992
Directed by: Geoff Murphy
Written by: Steven Pressfield, Ronald Shusett, Dan Gilroy
Based on: Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley
Music by: Trevor Jones
Cast: Emilio Estevez, Mick Jagger, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Banks, David Johansen, Esai Morales, Frankie Faison

Morgan Creek, Warner Bros., 110 Minutes

Review:

“Get the meat.” – Victor Vacendak

Freejack isn’t a good movie but it’s one of those cool ’90s action, sci-fi flicks that just hits the right notes for me. But you probably need to be a fan of these sort of films for this one to resonate.

It has a very Philip K. Dick style to it in plot and visual flourish.

I guess the coolest thing about the movie is that this has a really cool ensemble cast that features two rock and roll legends: Mick Jagger and David Johansen. But it also stars Emilio Estevez, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Jonathan Banks, Frankie Faison and the seemingly underappreciated Esai Morales.

Estevez stars as a Formula 1 driver that dies in a pretty spectacular crash. However, his body is plucked away just before the moment of death and he wakes up in the future, confused, lost and distraught. He is also being hunted by Mick Jagger and his posse, as Jagger has been tasked with capturing Estevez so that some rich guy can steal his body by uploading his brain into it.

The movie follows Emilio on the run where he finds out that he can’t trust any of his old friends. Overall, the film is action packed, high octane and balls out fun.

The chase sequence with Emilio driving a champagne delivery truck with Jagger following in a SWAT tank is pretty damn good. It’s accented by the great and booming score by Trevor Jones, who also provided good scores for The Last of the Mohicans, Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Cliffhanger, From Hell and Dark City.

For me the real highlight was Mick Jagger. The guy looked like he was having a great time filming this movie. Now I don’t know if he actually had fun but he certainly looked to be eating this film up. But the guy has infinite levels of charisma and he was entertaining as hell in this.

Anthony Hopkins, on the other hand, felt like he was dialing in his performance. He later went on to bash this film and maybe he had a sour taste for it when he was still making it.

All in all, this was actually better than I remembered. In fact, I wasn’t too enthused to revisit it but I wanted to watch something in this film’s style. I’m just glad that I was pleasantly surprised by it.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: the original Total RecallThe 6th Day and Timecop.

Film Review: Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Release Date: July 25th, 1986
Directed by: Stephen King
Written by: Stephen King
Based on: Trucks by Stephen King
Music by: AC/DC
Cast: Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle, Laura Harrington, Christopher Murney, Yeardley Smith, Frankie Faison, Giancarlo Esposito, Stephen King

De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 97 Minutes

Review:

“Adios, motherfucker!” – Bill Robinson

At the height of the 1980s Stephen King movie craze, you knew the man himself would eventually have to direct his own feature. Well, this is that film.

For some reason, Emilio Estevez, at the height of his career, when he was becoming a huge Hollywood star, decided to take the starring role in this. I’m not saying it was a bad choice but it was a surprising one, considering where his career had already been and where it seemed to be going. At the same time, I’m glad he did this because it is a fun and bizarre picture and working with King had to be a neat experience, especially at the time.

The story for this film is really bizarre. A comet comes close to Earth and the planet passes through its tail. All of a sudden, machines come to life and go on a homicidal rampage. A drawbridge causes some havoc, a soda machine goes berserk and attacks a Little League team, lawn mowers get hungry for human flesh and every motor vehicle on the planet turns into a crazed murderer. The cast of this picture are trapped inside a big gas station outside of Wilmington, North Carolina.

Maximum Overdrive actually has a cast of a lot of notable actors. Along with Estevez we get Pat Hingle, most beloved for me as Commissioner Gordon in the Tim Burton Batman films, Yeardley Smith a.k.a. Lisa Simpson, Frankie Faison, a guy I’ve loved since Coming to America, Giancarlo Esposito, who is probably most known as Gus Fring on Breaking Bad and as Buggin’ Out in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Stephen King, himself, even has a small cameo.

The film does have some slow moments but the action is pretty high octane, pun intended. Ultimately, people are trapped by evil killer semi trucks and have to feed them gas or face death. The heroes devise a plan, outwit the murder machines and are able to escape while destroying most of them. Granted, there is one final showdown between Emilio and the Green Goblin faced semi to close out the picture.

The acting is far from great. King’s work as a director isn’t bad but it isn’t good either. The film is shot pretty straightforward without a lot of artistic flourish. But this isn’t the type of film that needed to get artistic or sneak in the Dutch tilt. Maximum Overdrive is supposed to be a balls to the wall extravaganza and it mostly is.

This is one of those late night movies I loved as a teenager. It was featured on Monstervision with Joe Bob Briggs and in constant rotation on cable in the 90s. There isn’t a whole lot to dislike and Maximum Overdrive is just a lot of fun and pretty cool, despite the ridiculous premise.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Do The Right Thing (1989)

Release Date: May 19th, 1989 (Cannes)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee
Music by: Bill Lee, Public Enemy
Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, John Savage, Roger Guenveur Smith, Rosie Perez, Joie Lee, Steve White, Martin Lawrence, Robin Harris, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Park, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Turturro, Miguel Sandoval

40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Universal Pictures, 120 Minutes

Review:

In the summer of 1989 I was in Brooklyn visiting family for a few weeks. Being a big film buff, even at ten years-old, I had already seen every big summer movie that year. My cousin was driving us around and he asked if I wanted to see a movie. I did. He asked what I wanted to see. Thinking he would say “no”, I still replied “Do The Right Thing.” Being the cool nineteen year-old kid that he was, he smirked and said, “Well, alright.”

Leading up to my seeing Do The Right Thing in a movie theater in Brooklyn, not far from where the movie took place, I was mesmerized by the trailers and footage I saw on television. Living in Southwest Florida, I didn’t have a lot to do during summer days, except hang with friends, play video games or watch TV. I often times spent hours watching a cable channel called Movietime, which was actually E! Entertainment Television before it re-branded itself. On that channel, they always showed trailers, over and over again, and also went behind the scenes on films in development or coming out. It was a cool channel that taught a young film fan a lot about the industry and art he loved. But it is there, where I saw trailers and other footage for Do The Right Thing. Something about it just drew me in.

I always cherished the experience of seeing this film, so close to where it was made, at a time when I hadn’t quite experienced a real adult film in the theater. It was exciting but at the same time, it was a lot more than that. Do The Right Thing had a profound effect on me and how I saw other people. When I watch it now, much later in life, it is a reminder of that experience and the lessons I learned from it. It also is one of the first films that I saw to really cultivate my love for the art of motion pictures and filmmaking itself. This, alongside Cinema Paradiso, made me see movies differently.

Having just revisited Do The Right Thing for the first time in several years, it is kind of sad. Not because of the film itself but because it took away some of my optimism in regards to people. When I saw it was a kid, I truly believed that society was headed in the right direction. I thought that as time rolled on, the struggle of black people and the prejudices in America would improve. Yet, this film is almost thirty years old and its message is maybe even more relevant today than it was in 1989. Will it be even more relevant in another 30 years?

Spike Lee did a fantastic job with Do The Right Thing and it is, still to this day, my favorite Lee film (Malcolm X is a very close second). Maybe it is due to the experience it gave me when I should have been too young to have to see the world for what it is. But out of all his films, this one has the strongest message not just for African-Americans but for all Americans. And again, it is still a message that needs to be heard today.

The cinematography is stellar. The film really captures the people, the scenery and Brooklyn life in that era. The technique of using first-person perspective, which gets more prevalent as the film progresses and racial tensions increase, is masterfully shot and presented. The breaking of the fourth wall, as characters’ inner monologues come to life, directed at the audience, is effective in understanding their deepest inner prejudices and in helping escalate the tension from a narrative standpoint.

The use of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” throughout the film is perfect and really gives an anthem to the attitudes of many of the characters. It represents, what this film, at its core, is all about. The character of Radio Raheem was the perfect vessel within the film to deliver the song to the masses, as he walked up and down the street, all day, blasting the song from his radio. He wasn’t just a vessel for the message though, he was also a symbol, a physical embodiment of it. Bill Nunn did a fine job as Raheem and made him into an iconic figure for many.

There are several really standout performances in the film. I think a lot of props need to go to Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin’ Out. Most people know Esposito as the villainous Gus from Breaking Bad. It was his role in this film, that put him on the map for me. Then years later, when I did see him on Breaking Bad, playing one of the greatest villains in television history, I was ecstatic because this was a guy who I had followed since seeing him on the big screen as a ten year-old in a Brooklyn movie theater. I’ve always thought Esposito was an underutilized actor but those who regularly work with him know his talent. In Do The Right Thing, Esposito is so committed to the role that he really stands out above everyone else. And we’re talking about a movie that has Samuel Jackson, Rosie Perez, John Turturro, Robin Harris, Frankie Faison, Ossie Davis, Danny Aiello, Martin Lawrence, Frank Vincent and so many other faces that own the screen when they are on it.

Roger Guenveur Smith’s performance as Smiley is also superb. You couldn’t not feel for the guy and when he lost his shit, you were right there with him. It’s also heartbreaking to see how others in the film treat him, even his friends, due to his handicap. Smith  has played a lot of great characters over the years but Smiley is the one I most fondly remember.

There are few films that illustrate a sense of human brotherhood as much as Do The Right Thing. While it shows cultural clashes and tensions boiling over into violence, it also provides hope and displays a lot of wisdom. Most of the characters try to maintain order but the few who keep pushing each other bring the whole neighborhood to its breaking point. And then the cops show up to screw it up even more.

Do The Right Thing isn’t just a great film, it is an important film, maybe even more so today than in 1989.

Rating: 9.5/10