Review: ‘A Hero,’ starring Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabandeh, Sahar Goldoust, Saleh Karimaei, Alireza Jahandideh, Maryam Shahdaei and Farrokh Nourbakht

January 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Mohsen Tanabandeh, Saleh Karimai and Amir Jadidi in “A Hero” (Photo by Amir Hossein Shojaei/Amazon Content Services)

“A Hero”

Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Persian (Farsi) with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Shiraz, Iran, the dramatic film “A Hero” features an all-Middle-Eastern cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: While on a brief leave of absence from his prison sentence, a man with a history of being a chronic liar returns a lost purse filled with valuable coins, and he’s praised as a hero, but then he finds himself involved in a web of lies and mistrust.

Culture Audience: “A Hero” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of writer/director Asghar Farhadi and movies that have incisive commentaries on how media and public opinions can play influential roles in people’s images and reputations.

Sahar Goldoust in “A Hero” (Photo by Amir Hossein Shojaei/Amazon Content Services)

Can someone with a reputation of being unreliable and dishonest be redeemed by doing a single act of kindness? That’s a question posed throughout the suspenseful drama “A Hero,” which has very realistic depictions of themes exploring how media and public opinions can shape how someone in the public eye can be perceived. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, the movie takes place in Shiraz, Iran, in a culture that places an extremely high value on honor that individuals can bring to themselves and their families. That’s why the stakes are so high for the troubled protagonist who finds his attempt to clean up his reputation go awry after he does what he thinks is a good dead that will redeem him.

“A Hero” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix Prize. The movie was selected as Iran’s entry for the Best International Feature Film category for the 2022 Academy Awards. “A Hero,” which clocks in at 127 minutes, starts off a little slowly, but then it picks up its pace and becomes more intriguing about 45 minutes into the movie. It goes from being a drama about a prisoner in a family feud into a mystery thriller involving several members of the community.

The movie’s protagonist is Rahim Soltani (played by Amir Jadidi), a divorced father who’s been sentenced to prison for an unpaid debt of 150,000 tomans, which would be about $17,000 in U.S. dollars in the early 2020s, when this story takes place. Rahim owes the money to a businessman named Bahram (played by Mohsen Tanabandeh), who happens to be the brother-in-law of Rahim’s ex-wife. The ex-wife is never seen in the movie, and her name is never mentioned, although she is occasionally talked about by the people in the story.

Rahim, who has lived in Shiraz his entire life, has a prison sentence that allows him to leave the facility for a few days at a time, as long as he reports back to the prison to complete his sentence. The movie opens with Rahim going on an authorized two-day leave from the prison. What happens during those two days causes a chain of events that creates even more chaos in his life.

At first, Rahim seems to be in good spirits when he leaves the prison. He carries himself with the air of a good-looking charmer, who’s quick to dazzle people with his friendly ways and charismatic smile. But as time goes on, there are signs that Rahim has a dark side that’s he’s been trying to leave behind—or at least make people think he’s turned his life around into being a responsible and honest person.

The first person whom Rahim visits during this prison leave is Hossein (played by Alireza Jahandideh), Rahim’s friendly brother-in-law, who is married to Rahim’s sister Malileh (played by Maryam Shahdaei), a nurturing homemaker who has some health problems, such as neck pain and arthritis. Hossein works at a construction site that is renovating the Tomb of Xerxes. Rahim has enlisted Hossein’s help in trying to work out a payment plan with Bahram to erase the debt.

Rahim’s occupation before he went to prison and why he owes 150,000 tomans aren’t revealed until nearly halfway through the movie. He used to be a sign painter and a calligrapher, but business in those areas declined with the rise of do-it-yourself online graphic design. Rahim borrowed the money from Bahram to start his own business.

Rahim confidently tells Hossein how he can start paying off the debt, “I can have 75,000 tomans. Someone will give it to me. It’s not a loan.” Rahim will only say that he’s getting the money from “a friend,” but he won’t say who that friend is.

That’s where Rahim’s very loyal girlfriend Farkhondeh (played by Sahar Goldoust) comes into the picture. After leaving the construction site, Rahim goes to pick up Farkhondeh in his truck. Farkhondeh, who is elated to see Rahim, has a black purse containing some gold coins, which she and Rahim try to sell at a pawn shop. However, the shop dealer makes a calculation offer that Rahim and Farkhondeh know is too low for the types of coins that they have, so they leave the shop without making a sale.

Before Rahim and Hossein discuss this possible payment plan with Bahram, they stop off at the home of Hossein and Malileh, where Rahim will be staying before he goes back to prison. Malileh and Hossein live in the home with their two children—daughter Negar (who’s about 10 or 11 years old) and son Nima (who’s about 7 or 8 years old)—and Rahim’s son Siavesh (played by Saleh Karimaei), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. The movie doesn’t clearly explain the custody arrangement that Rahim has with his ex-wife for Siavesh, who is Rahim’s only child. However, the movie implies that the ex-wife still has contact with Siavesh, because he told Negar that his mother recently accepted a marriage proposal.

In the beginning of the movie, Rahim’s relationship with Siavesh is strained and distant. Siavesh is the only one in the household who doesn’t seem happy to see Rahim during this brief visit. Siavesh has a speech impediment that causes him to stutter and makes it difficult for him to articulate words. It’s also mentioned that Siavesh has recently gotten into a fight at school. It’s easy to speculate that Siavesh, who is quiet and emotionally withdrawn, could be bullied at school because of his speech impediment.

The lack of good communication between Rahim and Siavesh isn’t really about Siavesh’s speech impediment. It has more to do with Siavesh’s lack of trust in Rahim. Through various conversations, it’s revealed that Rahim has constantly let down the people who are closest to him. Later in the movie, when Rahim is asked about why he got divorced, he’s purposely vague and says that he and his ex-wife just didn’t get along with each other. However, Rahim’s unpaid debt to Bahram certainly didn’t help matters, since it’s caused bad blood between Rahim and his ex-wife’s side of the family.

Rahim says he’s trying to make things right by paying off the debt, which is why he wants to work out a payment plan with Bahram, who was the one who pressed charges to have Rahim arrested for non-payment of the debt. Bahram owns a copy/print shop in the area that is managed by his bachelorette daughter Nazanin (played by Sarina Farhadi), who doesn’t look pleased to see Rahim and Hossein when they show up unannounced to try to talk to Bahram. At one point in the movie, Bahram bitterly says that he had to use Nazanin’s dowry to cover the money he lost in the loan to Rahim.

Bahram isn’t at the shop, so Hossein (who acts as a mediator) insists that Nazanin get Bahram on the phone. During this phone conversation, Hossein tells Bahram that Rahim is willing to immediately pay 70,000 tomans as down payment for the debt. Bahram is extremely skeptical that Rahim has the money. “The jerk is lying,” Bahram angrily says. “Why should you expect me to trust him? He let down his family. He deserves no favor.”

After some arguing back and forth, Bahram reluctantly agrees to a tentative payment plan where Hossein will give Bahram bond checks, and Rahim will then play 7,500 tomans a month until the debt is paid off. Rahim insists he really can get about 70,000 tomans in cash. Where is he going to get the money?

It’s eventually revealed that Farkhondeh doesn’t actually own the purse with the gold coins. Farkhondeh found the purse and coins on the street, she told Rahim about this discovery, and Rahim concocted a plan to sell the coins to get some easy cash to start paying off his debt. Farkhondeh and Rahim are very much in love, and he plans to marry her someday. But for now, Rahim will be unemployed and without his own place to live when he gets out of prison. He seems to want to turn his life around and prove that he can be a responsible provider before he commits to another marriage.

With a failed attempt to sell the coins and time running out before he has to report back to prison, Rahim then comes up with the idea to come forward and report that the purse was found, with the hope that the owner will offer a reward. He goes to the bank that is near where Farkhondeh found the purse, to ask if anyone was looking for the purse at the bank. However, the bank officials say that no one inquired about the purse, but they suggest they he make flyers advertising the found purse.

The bank officials let Rahim use their copy supplies to make the flyers, which he posts in various locations around the area. Rahim doesn’t have his own cell phone. Instead of putting his sister’s phone number on the flyers, he puts the phone number of the prison. It’s a decision that he will later regret.

When his leave time ends, Rahim reports back to prison, where he and some other prisoners are given the task of wallpapering a room. His supervisor on the job is Mrs. Marvasti (played by Parisa Khajehdehi), who gets a call from a woman claiming to be the owner of the purse, and the woman asks to speak to Rahim. Rahim explains to Mrs. Marvasti what happened and that he put the prison phone number on the flyers. Mrs. Marvasti is very annoyed and tells him never to give out the prison phone number to anyone again.

Rahim is allowed to take the call from the mystery woman, who correctly answers his questions about the contents of the purse. Rahim explains that he’s in prison but that he left the purse and its contents with his sister and brother-in-law. He gives the woman the address and his sister’s phone number.

The woman (played by Fatemeh Tavakoli) who shows up to claim the purse and coins is tearful and expresses gratitude that her purse was found and that all its contents returned to her. Her visit is during the day, when Malileh and Siavesh are the only ones at home. (It’s implied that Siavesh isn’t in school because of his recent fight.)

The woman explains that she found out she lost the purse in between bus stops, and that she doesn’t want her husband to know that she lost the coins. The woman insists on giving a small cash reward for the return of the purse and coins. Malileh repeatedly declines the offer and finally accepts it when the woman says she’s giving the reward money to Siavesh.

The prison officials find out from Mrs. Marvasti about Rahim’s act of kindness in having the purse and gold coins returned to the woman who came forward and claimed these items. They ask Rahim for more information, and it’s enough for them to want to take the story to the media. Two prison officials in particular—prison warden Mr. Salehpoor (played by Mohammad Aghebati) and prison chief of cultural activities Salehi Taheri (played by Farrokh Nourbakht)—immediately arrange for a newspaper and a national TV network to interview Rahim.

Salehi has a closer relationship to Rahim than Mr. Salehpoor does, so Rahim confides in Salehi that he didn’t actually find the purse and coins but his girlfriend did. Rahim also says that, for personal reasons, he would rather not reveal his girlfriend’s identity because some people in his family don’t know yet that he’s dating her. Salehi says it doesn’t matter who found the purse and coins because Rahim was the one who distributed the flyers and arranged for the purse and coins to be returned to the rightful owner. Salehi tells Rahim that it will be okay for Rahim to take all the credit without mentioning his girlfriend.

It isn’t long before Rahim becomes a local celebrity because of the media coverage. He’s praised for being a hero and treated like a hero by many people, ranging from his immediate family to complete strangers. In his interviews, he admits that he originally planned to sell the coins, but he changed his mind when he prayed about it. He says that the botched sale attempt was a sign from God that selling the coins wasn’t the right thing to do.

A local woman named Mrs. Radmehr (played by Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy) heads the Mehrpooyan Charity Association, a religious group that helps prisoners in need. She arranges a ceremony where Rahim is honored and where she announces that a local council has offered Rahim a job in its administration when his prison sentence ends. In addition, the charity launches a fundraising initiative to help Rahim pay off his debt. The fundraising immediately gets about 30,000 tomans in donations, with more money pouring in from the public.

Not everyone is impressed with Rahim’s new “hero” status. A hostile prisoner (played by Amir Amiri) outright accuses Rahim of colluding with prison officials to fabricate the story, so that the prison could get some good publicity after the recent scandal of a prisoner committing suicide. Rahim denies that the story is a lie, and he refuses the other prisoner’s challenge to get in a physical fight over it. However, the prison is so pleased with all the good PR that the story has generated, Rahim is allowed another prison leave so that he can arrange to pay off his debt with the money that was raised for him, as well as interview for the job that was offered to him.

Bahram is very skeptical that Rahim’s story is true, and he openly expresses his doubt in a meeting with Rahim, Hossein, Mrs. Radmehr and other charity officials, who try to get Bahram to accept the fundraising money to pay off Rahim’s debt. Bahram tells everyone who will listen that Rahim is a habitual liar. Bahram thinks that Rahim doesn’t deserve the charity money that was raised for Rahim because Bahram says that Rahim shouldn’t be rewarded with money for doing what any decent human being would do.

But the biggest stumbling block for Rahim in his road to redemption is when he goes to interview for the job at the local council. The human resources director Mr. Nadeali (played by Ehsan Goodarzi) says the job won’t be offered until Rahim’s story checks out as true. He asks Rahim to have the woman who claimed the purse and coins to come to the office to verify that she’s the rightful owner. The problem is that Rahim doesn’t know her name, and neither does Malileh or Siavish, who didn’t ask for the woman’s name or contact information when she went to the home.

Meanwhile, rumors are being spread on social media that Rahim made up the entire story. The rest of the movie is a rollercoaster ride as Rahim tries to find the mystery woman and prove that he’s not involved in a con game. Rahim ends up having to be his own private investigator in a race against time before he has to spend his last few days in prison. He gets some help from Farkhondeh, his family members and other members of the community, but will that be enough? Not all of the questions posed in the movie are answered.

Although “A Hero” has plenty of tension and very good acting performances, the movie does suffer a bit from some plot holes. First, with all the media coverage of Rahim’s story, it’s highly unlikely that journalists wouldn’t first try to find the woman who claimed to be the owner of the purse and coins, before making Rahim into a hero. Most journalists covering the story would at least need her name, in order for the story to check out and be reported accurately. In other words, the movie kind of gets it wrong about the fact checking needed before a story like this could be reported as real by legitimate media.

Second, during his investigation, Rahim is able to obtain a surveillance camera photo of the mystery woman, but he doesn’t use any media coverage (on social media or traditional media) to try and find her. He just shows the picture to some people in the area, who say they don’t recognize her. It’s a pretty big plot hole, considering that media coverage is a major part of the movie, in terms of how Rahim’s reputation is being handled.

Third, everyone puts the burden and blame on Rahim for not getting this woman’s name, when he wasn’t the one who gave the items back to her, and he wasn’t the one who sought media attention for this good deed. The media failed to do due diligence in checking out the story, and so did the prison officials who eagerly took the story to the media. The pile-on of shame that Rahim gets in the movie seems overly contrived for the sake of drama, when any viewer can see he didn’t plan the media coverage that he ended up getting.

Still, there are some aspects about the story that make the movie very compelling to watch. Because of the clues that Rahim uncovers, he starts to believe that this mystery woman was involved in some kind of set-ap against Rahim, and she doesn’t want to be found. For example, there was no ID in the purse, and she purposely used strangers’ cell phones to make her calls about the purse.

The movie drops some big hints over who could have been behind this set-up. But does this conspiracy theory turn out to be true, and does anyone get caught for it? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out. “A Hero” doesn’t portray Rahim as a totally innocent victim, because he makes decisions that are foolish, dishonest and self-destructive. Even though he has a charming side, Rahim also has a nasty temper that can turn violent.

One of the things that’s very noticeable about “A Hero” is that this “hero” actually needs rescuing more than a few times by his girlfriend. Without going into too many details, it’s enough to say that Farkhondeh does whatever it takes to help Rahim, whom she describes as the love of her life and the only person who makes her happy. And exactly who is Farkhondeh?

The movie gives some context over why Farkhondeh, who is 37, is willing to risk everything in her life for Rahim. In a patriarchal nation where a never-married, 37-year-old woman with no kids is considered a hopeless “old maid,” Farkhondeh is living with this societal stigma. She doesn’t have a home of her own. If she has a job, it’s never mentioned in the movie. The only times that Farkhondeh is shown in the movie is in the context of her relationship with Rahim.

Farkhondeh lives with her very domineering brother Morteza (played by Mohammad Jamalledini) and his wife. Farkhondeh has to ask for Morteza’s permission for Rahim to meet Morteza, who doesn’t approve of Rahim being a divorced, unemployed father with a prison record. Morteza changes his mind about Rahim being a loser when he sees the media coverage of Rahim’s “good deed.”

Still, Morteza warns Farkhondeh not to come crying to him when Rahim breaks her heart. And when Rahim’s credibility about the “good deed” begins to be publicly doubted, Morteza begins to think that his first thoughts about Rahim being a con artist just might be true. Despite getting a lot of criticism from Morteza about her choice in Rahim as a partner, Farkhondeh has a feisty streak that doesn’t put up with any insults that Morteza throws her way.

Another interesting aspect of “A Hero” is how the relationship evolves between Rahim and his son Siavesh. In the beginning of the movie, Rahim almost treats Saivesh like an embarrassment to the family, while Siavesh treats Rahim like a deadbeat dad. When Rahim becomes a public “hero,” Siavesh begins to respect Rahim, and they become closer.

But the true test of their relationship is when Rahim gets some public backlash after his story is doubted. That’s when Rahim begins to understand what Siavesh must feel like to be treated like a misunderstood outsider. In the last third of the movie, there’s a very powerful scene where Rahim’s protective side as a father comes out when he sees how Siavesh is being mistreated by someone.

The relationships that Rahim has with Siavesh and with Farkhondeh are the emotional centers of the movie. And that’s why, as riveting as Jadidi’s performance is as Rahim, it’s made all the more poignant because of the convincing performances of Karimaei as Siavesh and Goldoust as Farkhondeh. Without them, Rahim’s motives would appear to be entirely selfish in fighting for his integrity and reputation.

“A Hero” also has some nuanced storytelling about society’s tendency to make people sudden stars and then want to tear them down just as quickly. There’s a level of unrealistic “perfection” that many people in the public eye are expected to have. Any signs of flaws or mistakes made as a “celebrity” can result in public shaming and attempts to “cancel” the person and relegate that person back to obscurity.

The movie leaves open-ended questions for audiences to ponder, such as: “Who is worthy of this type of accelerated vaulting into ‘hero’ status? How should they be vetted? And what types of mistakes or misdeeds of these public heroes should be forgiven and when?” Despite some flaws in the plot of “A Hero,” writer/director Farhadi skillfully weaves these questions into the story in a way that will have audiences thinking about these questions long after the movie is over.

Amazon Studios released “A Hero” in select U.S. cinemas on January 7, 2022. Prime Video will premiere the movie on January 21, 2022.

Review: ‘Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,’ starring the voices of Brian Hull, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Brad Abrell, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn

January 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Blobby (voiced by Genndy Tartakovsky), Wanda (voiced by Molly Shannon), Wayne (voiced by Steve Buscemi), Griffin the Invisible Man (voiced by David Spade), Ericka (voiced by Kathryn Hahn), Dracula (voiced by Brian Hull), Jonathan (voiced by Andy Samberg), Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez), Frank (voice by Brad Abrell), Eunice (voiced by Fran Drescher), Murray (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) with (pictured at far right, in the front row) Dennis (voiced by Asher Blinkoff) and Winnie (voiced by Zoe Berri) in “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation/Amazon Content Services)

“Hotel Transylvania: Transformania”

Directed by Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska

Culture Representation: Taking place in Transylvania and South America, the animated film “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American and two Latinos) depicting monsters and humans.

Culture Clash: Count Dracula is ready to retire and pass Hotel Transylvania along to his daughter Mavis, but a mishap with Van Helsing’s invention changes Mavis’ human husband Johnny into a monster and Dracula and his monster friends into humans.

Culture Audience: Aside from obviously appealing to “Hotel Transylvania” movie series fans, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in lightweight animated films with cliché-ridden and predictable plots.

Johnny (voiced by Andy Samberg) and Van Helsing (voicd by Jim Gaffigan) in “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation/Amazon Content Services)

It’s never really a good sign when a movie studio takes a sequel film from one of its most popular franchise series and sells it to a streaming service. It usually means that the movie is considered not commercially appealing enough for the studio to release the film. It’s also not a good sign when two of franchise’s biggest stars decide not to be part of this sequel.

That’s what happened when Sony Pictures Animation dumped “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” (the fourth movie in the “Hotel Transylvania” hotel series) by selling it to Amazon, which is releasing it on Prime Video. (China is the only country where Sony will release the film in theaters.) It’s easy to see why Sony thought this movie was substandard. It’s also easy to see why original “Hotel Transylvania” franchise stars Adam Sandler and Kevin James took a hard pass on being involved in this movie, whether it was because they weren’t going to paid what they wanted and/or legal issues. (Sandler and James both have lucrative movie deals with Netflix.)

Genndy Tartakovsky—who directed the first three “Hotel Transylvania” movies and co-wrote 2018’s “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation”—co-wrote “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” with Amos Vernon and Nunzio Randazzo. The first two movies in the series are 2012’s “Hotel Transylvania” and 2015’s “Hotel Transylvania 2.” Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluskais directed “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” which is not a completely terrible movie. But in terms of its story, the movie is lazy and not very interesting.

As the fourth movie in the series, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” had the potential to go on an original adventure with the franchise’s well-established characters. Instead, the movie is filled with over-used clichés that have already been in other films. “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is essentially a not-very-funny comedy with this not-very-original concept: Two characters with opposite personalities are forced to travel together and find out how much they have to rely on each other in order to reach a shared goal. Relationships and characters that could have been developed are ignored or shoved to the margins of the story. The ending of the movie is also kind of weak and abrupt.

“Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is also one of those sequels that doesn’t adequately explain some of the backstories of some of the main characters. If people need to watch one movie to prepare for “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” it should be “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation.” That’s the movie that introduced monster hunters Van Helsing (voiced by Jim Gaffigan) and his sassy great-granddaughter Ericka (voiced by Kathryn Hahn), who started off as enemies to the “Hotel Transylvania” protagonists and ended up becoming their friends. And in Ericka’s case, more than friends, because she and widower Count Dracula fell in love with each other.

The voice of Count Dracula was originated by Sandler in the first three “Hotel Transylvania” movies. In “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” Dracula (voiced by Brian Hull) and Ericka (who is a human) are now happily married, but it’s barely explained in this sequel how they got together. The prejudice between monsters and humans, which fueled much of the conflicts in the previous “Hotel Transylvania” movies, is only used as a flimsy plot device in “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania.” Dracula’s vampire daughter Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez) is married to a human named Jonathan, nicknamed Johnny (voiced by Andy Samberg), who’s had a hard time getting reluctant acceptance from Dracula, who thinks Johnny is too goofy for practical-minded Mavis.

But now that Dracula is married to a human, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” does not do anything to explore this new aspect of Dracula’s life. Instead, the movie’s story goes back to Dracula disapproving of Johnny, which was the basis of the first “Hotel Transylvania” movie, when Johnny and Mavis began dating and fell in love with each other. In “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” Johnny and Mavis have been married for several years and have a son named Dennis (voiced by Asher Blinkoff), who is about 8 or 9 years old and who has very little screen time in the movie.

In “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” Dracula still owns and operates Hotel Transylvania (a hotel for monsters), but he wants to retire so that he can have more time to spend with Ericka. Dracula has decided that he is going to give ownership of the hotel to Mavis and Johnny. Mavis, who has hearing superpowers, overhears Dracula telling Ericka about his retirement plans, which he says he’s going to announce at the hotel’s 125th anniversary celebration.

Mavis is excited to find out that she and Johnny will be taking over ownership of the hotel. She tells Johnny, who’s also elated. Johnny immediately comes up with ideas of how he’s going to change the hotel.

When Johnny enthusiastically shares these ideas with Dracula, his father-in-law is so turned off, he changes his mind about wanting Johnny to co-own the hotel. Instead of telling the truth about why he changed his mind, Dracula lies to Johnny by telling him that there’s an ancient law that says hotels for monsters can only be owned by monsters. At the hotel’s 125th anniversary party, Dracula lies to everyone and says his big announcement is that the hotel will get a new restroom in the lobby.

A dismayed Johnny then asks for help from Van Helsing, who has been living as a retired eccentric who tinkers with inventions. Van Helsing has an invention called a Monsterfication Ray, which can turn humans into random monsters. The device looks like a long ray gun with a giant crystal as its source of power. Van Helsing uses the Monsterfication Ray on Johnny, who is turned into a giant green monster resembling a dragon. Even though his physical appearance has drastically changed, Johnny has the same personality, and he can still talk like a human.

Dracula is furious about Johnny’s transformation into a monster because he still doesn’t want to give Johnny ownership of the hotel. And so, Dracula angrily goes over to Van Helsing’s place to take the Monsterfication Ray and use it to turn Johnny back into a human. But the plan backfires when Dracula shoots the Monsterfication Ray at Johnny, the lasers on the ray ricochet off walls, and the rays accidentally hit Dracula, who turns into a human being as a result. Much to Dracula’s horror, he is now looks and feels like an old man, with a balding head, a stomach paunch and weaker physical strength.

Dracula’s four closest monster friends—good-natured Frankenstein (voiced by Brad Abrell, replacing James in the role), worrisome werewolf Wayne (voiced by Steve Buscemi), fun-loving mummy Murray (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) and sarcastic invisible man Griffin (voiced by David Spade)—have all witnessed this debacle. Dracula is terrified about Mavis finding out about him turning into a human and Johnny into a monster. Dracula orders his friends not to tell Mavis.

Somehow, when Dracula used the Monsterfication Ray, the device got broken, and the crystal no longer works. Van Helsing says that the crystals used for the Monsterfication Ray are extremely rare. Through a tracking device, Van Helsing finds out that the nearest crystal is in South America. Guess where Dracula and Johnny are going for most of the movie?

Meanwhile, a poorly written part of the movie has Frankenstein, Wayne, Murray and Griffin turning into humans too. It’s shown in an awkward scene where the hotel’s DJ—a green blob called Blobby (voiced by Tartakovsky)—gives the four pals a drink that has something in it which automatically turns them into humans. Blobby consumes the drink too, but he’s just turn to a green gelatin mold.

Frankenstein changes into a vain “hunk” with a tall and muscular body, Wayne transforms into a very hairy man, and Murray becomes an old man with rolls of body flab. Griffin is exposed as someone who only wore eyeglasses, so he’s naked the entire time that he’s human. Griffin’s nakedness is used for some dimwitted comedy in the movie.

Just like Dracula and Murray, Griffin is horrified that he looks old and out-of-shape as a human. This movie has not-so-subtle and problematic messages that looking like an elderly human being is a terrible fate that should be avoided at all costs. It’s the closest reason to explain why Frankenstein suddenly becomes an egotistical jerk over how he looks as a young and virile human being. This drastic personality change still comes across as too phony, and it doesn’t serve the story very well.

Mavis, Ericka, Frankenstein’s shrewish wife Eunice (voiced by Fran Drescher) and Wayne’s loving wife Wanda (voiced by Molly Shannon) find out that Dracula and Johnny have gone to South America. And so, Mavis, Ericka, Eunice, Wanda, Frankenstein, Wayne, Murray, Griffin and several of Wayne and Wanda’s werewolf kids go to South America to find Johnny and Dracula. It’s never really explained why some but not all of the werewolf kids (Wayne and Wanda have dozens of children) are along for the ride or why these kids even need to be there in the first place.

Meanwhile, much of “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” shows repetitive mishaps that Dracula and Johnny go through as they wander around Amazon River areas in South America in search of the crystal. Dracula has a hard time adjusting to life as a human. He no longer has to fear being in the sunlight, but he’s frustrated that he gets tired, thirsty and sweaty on this grueling trip. When he jumps into a waterfall that Johnny warns could be dangerous, Dracula gets bitten by several piranhas and is shocked that he can’t recover quickly from these injuries.

Johnny is the same cheerful goofball, but he still gets on Dracula’s nerves. Dracula is also jealous that Johnny now has more physical strength than Dracula does. It goes on and on like this for too long in the movie. As an example of how “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” stretches out the banality, there’s a scene with Johnny singing a Spanish version of Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” during a bus ride that Johnny and Dracula take with some local people. It’s intended to be hilarious, but it just comes across as dull and cringeworthy.

Visually, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” does nothing special, although the movie makes good use of vibrant hues in the outdoor South America scenes. The cast members’ performances are adequate. Thankfully, movie clocks in at just 98 minutes, but the story is filled with too many recycled tropes of two opposite personalities stuck together on a road trip; the hunt for a treasured item; and the central characters being chased by people who want to find them.

“Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” doesn’t have much use for the adult female characters, who basically just worry about and react to what their husbands are doing. And because Dracula is separated from his four closest monster pals for most of the movie, that friendship rapport is largely missing from “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania.” This rapport was one of the highlights of previous “Hotel Transylvania” movies.

The movie shows almost nothing about what Dracula is like as a grandfather to Dennis. Wayne and Wanda have a daughter named Winnie (voiced by Zoe Berri, replacing Sadie Sandler in the role), who is Dennis’ best friend/love interest, but that relationship is also essentially ignored in the movie. Instead, some the werewolf children, who do not have names or individual personalities, get unnecessary screen time when they tag along during the trip to South America.

Some people might enjoy “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” if they want to see another “Hotel Transylvania” movie about Dracula and Johnny trying to navigate their tension-filled relationship. “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is being marketed as the final movie in the “Hotel Transylvania” series. If that’s true, then the “Hotel Transylvania” movie series is going out with a toothless whimper, not a bang.

Prime Video premiered “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘The Manor’ (2021), starring Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davison, Nicholas Alexander, Jill Larson, Fran Bennett, Katie Amanda Keane and Ciera Payton

December 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Barbara Hershey and Nicholas Alexander in “The Manor” (Photo by Kevin Estrada/Amazon Content Services)

“The Manor” (2021)

Directed by Axelle Carolyn

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “The Manor” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A retired dance teacher checks herself into a manor facility for senior citizens and finds out that mysterious and deadly things are happening in this facility. 

Culture Audience: “The Manor” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Barbara Hershey and formulaic stories about nursing homes from hell.

Pictured clockwise from top left: Jill Larson, Fran Bennett, Bruce Davison and Barbara Hershey in “The Manor” (Photo by Kevin Estrada/Amazon Content Services)

“The Manor” starts off as an intriguing movie showing parallels between a horror story and people’s fear of aging and diseases. But the movie is ruined by a campy ending, which has a big decision that will leave viewers divided. One of the problems with “The Manor” is that it tries to frontload the movie with too much in the first two-thirds of the film, and then rushes to explain everything in the last third of the film. Not everything is adequately explained by the end of the movie, which badly mishandles depictions of Parkinson’s disease.

“The Manor” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. Written and directed by Axelle Carolyn, “The Manor” should be commended for at least trying to do something different in a horror movie, by having the protagonist/lead character as a woman who’s in her 70s. It’s also rare for a horror movie to be set in a nursing home.

However, this concept could have been treated with better attention to details over the health issues that are crucial to the plot. “The Manor” has some genuinely creepy cinematography, and the visual effects are adequate. But there are too many moments that stretch the bounds of credibility, even for a fictional horror movie. One of the biggest flaws of “The Manor” is the mind-boggling, sloppy inconsistency in depicting how the main character has Parkinson’s disease.

At the opening scene of “The Manor,” retired dance teacher Judith Albright (played by Barbara Hershey) is celebrating her 70th birthday at an outdoor party. Judith is a widow whose dance specialty was ballet. Everyone seems to be good cheer. Among the party attendees are Judith’s widowed daughter Barbara (played by Katie Amanda Keane) and Barbara’s 17-year-old son Josh (played by Nicholas Alexander), who has a close relationship with Judith. Suddenly, Judith collapses at the party.

The movie then fast-forwards to six months later. Judith is shown checking voluntarily into Golden Sun Manor Nursing Home, which is a large estate on a sprawling property near a wooded area in an unnamed U.S. city. (“The Manor” was actually filmed in Los Angeles.) It’s revealed that Judith has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and might be showing signs of dementia. Josh doesn’t think Judith belongs in a nursing home, but his mother Barbara thinks it’s the best decision for Judith because Barbara can’t or won’t be responsible for taking care of Judith.

For someone who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Judith is unrealistically nimble and in firm control of her muscles and motor skills. She’s never seen shaking uncontrollably, and she has no problems speaking. “The Manor” would have been more believable if the movie just didn’t even have Parkinson’s disease as one of Judith’s health problems and just made her someone who might be showing signs of dementia.

The dementia part of the movie is why Judith is constantly doubted when she describes her terrifying visions and suspicions that people are being harmed at the nursing home. Judith’s suspicions start when she begins to see a strange creature lurking at night in the room that Judith shares with a wheelchair-using woman named Annette (played by Nancy Linehan Charles), who has Alzheimer’s disease.

Annette rarely talks, but when she does, it’s often incoherent rambling. During one of the few times that Annette can speak clearly, she shouts out a warning to Judith: “Don’t you see? He’s watching us sleep!” It’s enough to confirm to Judith that Annette can see this ominous creature too. But who’s going to believe two people with faulty memories and diminished abilities to distinguish between reality and fantasy?

And just to make sure that Judith will feel more helpless, she’s told when she checks into the nursing home that the residents aren’t allowed to have cell phones. The excuse is that cell phones aren’t allowed, in order to have “peace and quiet” in the building. It’s just a horror movie’s way to prevent characters in distress to be unable to use a cell phone to call for help.

Judith acts surprised by this “no cell phones” rule, but the stern nursing home director Ms. Benson (played by Stacey Travis) reminds Judith that this rule was in the contract that Judith signed. Judith’s only real lifeline to the outside world is her grandson Josh, who visits her on a regular basis. Eventually, Judith tells Josh about her horrifying suspicions about the nursing home.

At one point, Judith is officially diagnosed with dementia by the resident physician Dr. Geoghegan (played by Andrew Tinpo Lee), who tells Barbara that Judith is required to have constant supervision because of her dementia. It means that the nursing home’s staff will have more control over her life. The two staffers whom Judith is in contact with the most are a friendly attendant named Liesel (played by Ciera Payton) and a no-nonsense manager named Elizabeth (played by Shelley Robertson), who always seems to be on the lookout for residents doing something wrong.

Elizabeth and a registered nurse named Gary (played by Devin Kawaoka) are the two staffers most likely to use physical force to subdue a resident or to force a resident to do something that the resident doesn’t want to do. At one point, Judith witnesses Gary overpowering a frightened resident named Imogen (played by Cissy Wellman), who lives across the hall from Judith. As Imogen is forced back into her room, Imogen screams, “I want to go home!”

It’s not the last disturbing thing that Judith will see in this nursing home. And at different points in the movie, Imogen tries to give signals to other people that she wants to escape. Meanwhile, Judith balks at any attempt to get Judith to take medication that will sedate her.

Judith’s new living situation is brightened by the fact that she makes three new friends in the nursing home: Trish (played by Jill Larson) and Ruth (played by Fran Bennett) are talkative roommates. Roland (played by Bruce Davison) is a widower who seems immediately attracted to Judith. The four of them often sit together for meals, and talk about their lives, including a lot of reminiscing about their youth.

Judith confides in her new friends that her relationship with Barbara has some tension. Judith explains that after Barbara’s husband/Josh’s father died, Barbara had a hard time coping, and Judith found herself helping take care of Josh. As a result, Judith and Josh grew closer emotionally, but Barbara has some resentment over this closeness. “He keeps me young,” Judith says proudly about Josh. “He’s the light of my life.”

Judith is allowed to walk outside on the nursing home property, as long as a staffer is with her. During one of Judith’s first tours of the outdoor area, Ciera takes her to a picture-perfect part of the woods that she says is a popular spot for young local trespassers to gather at night and party. “The Manor” is not subtle at all in showing that there’s a tree in this part of the woods that’s “special,” because there’s an almost-blinding white glow around the tree, every time it’s shown in the movie.

Despite the seemingly picturesque surroundings, too many odd and unsettling things are happening to Judith for her to think that the nursing home is a safe place. And when Judith suddenly starts acting like a senior citizen Nancy Drew by snooping around in rooms where she’s not supposed to be, her Parkinson’s disease is all but forgotten. She’s able to quickly crawl underneath a bed to hide from someone, she makes lightning-fast deductions like a seasoned detective, and she vigorously fights back against staffers who try to subdue her.

It all just leads to a shoddily filmed conclusion that’s not earned or believable. Hershey does her best to play a role that gives her a lot of screen time to show some acting range. However, she’s a talented actress who deserved a much better showcase than what is essentially a substandard horror movie that makes an insulting mockery of real health problems faced by people with Parkinson’s disease.

Prime Video premiered “The Manor” on October 8, 2021.

Review: ‘Madres’ (2021), starring Tenoch Huerta, Ariana Guerra, Evelyn Gonzalez, Kerry Cahill and Elpidia Carrillo

December 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ariana Guerra in “Madres” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/ Amazon Content Services)

“Madres” (2021)

Directed by Ryan Zaragoza

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1977 in California’s fictional Golden Valley, the horror film “Madres” features a predominantly Latino cast (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Mexican immigrant and his pregnant American-born wife relocate from Los Angeles to rural Golden Valley and find themselves caught in a dangerous mystery over why women in the area have a history of pregnancy trauma and infertility. 

Culture Audience: “Madres” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies that are based on real-life horror stories.

Tenoch Huerta and Ariana Guerra in “Madres” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/ Amazon Content Services)

“Madres” is a “slow burn” horror movie that’s bound to make people uncomfortable. Even though there are supernatural elements in the story, it’s based on real-life traumatic incidents involving motherhood. The final 20 minutes of the movie make up for the aspects of the story that tend to get repetitive. The cast members of “Madres” also capably handle the material.

“Madres” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. Directed by Ryan Zaragoza and written by Marcella Ochoa and Mario Miscione, “Madres” at first appears to be a standard ghost story about a couple who have seemingly moved into a haunted house. But by the end of the movie, viewers will know that even though “Madres” takes place in 1977, the film makes an impactful statement about a shameful problem in society that still happens today.

In “Madres,” happily married couple Beto Obregon (played by Tenoch Huerta) and Diana Obregon (played by Ariana Guerra) are shown arriving in the rural, fictional town of Golden Valley in the northern part of California. Beto (who is 30 years old) and Diana (who’s about the same age or slightly younger than Beto) have moved to Golden Valley because Beto is a farm worker who has been offered a job to manage a farm. It’s his first managerial job, so the couple is excited about this job opportunity and increased salary, especially because Diana is pregnant with their first child.

Beto is an immigrant from Mexico who has been living in the United States for the past five years. He comes from a poor family, but he has the ambition and work ethic to want to achieve the American Dream. Diana was born in the United States and comes from a middle-class family who was originally from Mexico. Because Diana doesn’t speak Spanish and because she has a light skin tone, she could be mistaken for being a white American. It’s mentioned in the movie that Diana’s parents discouraged her from learning Spanish, which implies that her parents want to distance themselves from their Mexican roots.

“Madres” doesn’t just look at nationality issues. The movie also touches on conflicts that arise because of social class and colorism. In a phone conversation between Diana and her sister Veronica, viewers find out that Diana’s parents do not approve of her marriage to Beto, because he’s uneducated, he’s dark-skinned, and because the parents think Beto will be nothing but a poor farmer. Because of this disapproval, Diana has kept her distance from her parents, who seem to prefer Veronica as the “favored child.”

Diana has a journalism degree. Before she got pregnant, Diana worked as a journalist, but she got fired from her job for being pregnant, but she plans to go back to work when she can. In the meantime, during her pregnancy, Diana has been working on a book. It isn’t long after Diana and Beto are settled into their fixer-upper home that problems start happening.

Diana starts having nightmares, including one shown during the movie’s opening scene where Diana dreams that she has a newborn baby who disappears when the baby’s crib suddenly fills with dirt. Diana also starts to see and hear frightful things at various times of the day and night, such as shadowy figures, a boy with a bloody eye who’s hiding in a tree, and some egg yolk that looks like it starting to bleed.

“Madres” is definitely a “things that go bump in the night” movie, since a lot of scenes are about Diana witnessing something and starting to question her sanity. Sometimes, Beto goes to investigate things that Diana says that she’s seen, but he doesn’t find anything. In the meantime, Diana and Beto become increasingly worried about all of this stress will affect their unborn child.

At his new job, Beto’s supervisor is Tomas (played by Joseph Garcia), who seems to have a lot of confidence in Beto as a new hire. Beto earns the respect of his co-workers (who are all Hispanics/Latinos), but Diana has a harder time fitting into this farm community. At a company picnic, Diana feels like an outsider because she seems to be the only one who doesn’t know how to speak Spanish. And as a newcomer to the area, she also finds it difficult to adjust to living in a rural way of life in this tight-knit community

Even though Diana doesn’t speak Spanish fluently, she does know some words in Spanish. Therefore, Diana can still understand that she’s getting catty and jealous remarks from some of the other wives at this gathering. They think that Diana is too uppity for this clique because she’s light-skinned, college-educated, and never bothered to learn how to speak Spanish. A woman named Rosa (played by Leydi Morales), who is married to a farm worker named Rafael Ernesto (played by René Mena), seems to be the most jealous one in this group of farm worker wives.

During this picnic, Diana finds out that pregnancy and motherhood are touchy subjects in this community. Many of the women in the area have had miscarriages or can’t get pregnant. There are stories going around that maybe the women of Golden Valley are cursed.

Not long after moving to Golden Valley, Beto and Diana go to a gift shop, where they are greeted by Anita (played by Elpidia Carrillo), the shop owner. She offers to give a blessing to the Beto, Diana and their unborn child. Anita sells a lot of trinkets in shop, which looks like she caters to a lot of people who believe in superstitions. It should come as no surprise that Anita is called “The Witch Lady” by many of the locals.

One day, Anita shows up unannounced at Beto and Diana’s house and tries to give Diana a necklace for “protection.” Diana, who is put off by this unexpected visit, says that she’s not superstitious and she firmly refuses this gift. Anita insists that she gives this gift to all pregnant women in the town, but Diana still refuses to take the necklace.

The rest of “Madres” follows Diana’s pregnancy journey that goes from hopeful to harrowing. At one point, Diana ends up in a hospital maternity ward where someone named Nurse Carol (played by Kerry Cahill) is exactly like the type of nurse that you think she is when she interacts with Diana. Along the way, she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery of the house’s previous resident: A woman named Teresa Flores, who died in 1955, and left many of her possessions behind.

Why was the house unoccupied for 22 years before Beto and Diana moved there? Is Teresa possibly haunting the house? And if so, why? And does Anita know more than she’s telling Diana? All of those questions are answered in the movie.

“Madres” is not the type of horror movie that has a lot of action and gore. Anyone looking for that type of content throughout the film will probably be disappointed. The movie overall doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, in terms of jump scares or cinematography. Guerra’s performance is believable and carries the movie. Whether are not viewers like “Madres” largely depends on how much they can connect with Guerra’s portrayal of Diana.

And it takes a while for the movie to pick up its pace. The second half of “Madres” is better than the first half. By the end of “Madres,” it will become clear that the movie isn’t the usual ghost story. The biggest horror in the film doesn’t come from the supernatural but from human beings who commit heinous acts of evil.

Prime Video premiered “Madres” on October 8, 2021.

Review: ‘Black as Night,’ starring Asjha Cooper, Fabrizio Guido, Mason Beauchamp, Frankie Smith, Abbie Gayle, Craig Tate and Keith David

December 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Fabrizio Guido, Mason Beauchamp, Asjha Cooper and Abbie Gayle in “Black as Night” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/Amazon Content Services)

“Black as Night”

Directed by Maritte Lee Go

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the horror film “Black as Night” features a racially diverse cast (Latino, white, African American and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Teenagers battle vampires that are plaguing their city. 

Culture Audience: “Black as Night” will appeal primarily to people who want to see botched preaching about racism in a low-quality horror movie.

A scene from “Black as Night” (Photo by Alan Markfield/Amazon Content Services)

The vampire flick “Black as Night” uses racism and colorism as punchlines in ways that aren’t very funny and end up being grating in how these jokes are repeated. It’s an awful horror movie that thinks it’s being clever, when it actually dumbs everything down for the audience in a very formulaic way. As an example of how shoddy and phony the filmmaking is in “Black as Night,” the movie takes place in New Orleans and was filmed on location in New Orleans, but no one in the movie sounds like they’re from New Orleans.

“Black as Night” is filled with degrading stereotypes of African Americans and gay men. The movie’s protagonist is an African American teenage girl who is constantly made to feel inferior because she has darker skin than her African American peers. (It’s the reason why the movie’s title “Black as Night” has a double meaning.) And when viewers find out who the chief villain is in the story, it just shows more terrible stereotyping of African Americans.

“Black as Night” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. Directed by Maritte Lee Go, and written by Sherman Payne and Jay Walker, “Black as Night” wants desperately to look authentic, when it comes to African American culture and how an African American female is supposed to act. However, the filmmaking team chose not to include any African American women as a director, writer or producer for this movie. It’s why so much of “Black as Night,” which centers on an African American female, smacks of so much inauthenticity.

The protagonist and narrator of “Black as Night” is a teenager named Shawna (played by Asjha Cooper), who’s about 16 or 17. Her best friend/classmate is an openly gay, Mexican immigrant named Pedro (played by Fabrizio Guido), who is every bit of the “sassy and gossipy gay best friend” stereotype that has been overdone in movies and TV. Shawna and Pedro spend a lot of their time making racist comments about white people, because they automatically think most white people are racists.

The first time that Shawna and Pedro are seen in the movie, they’re sunning themselves on the roof of a building that could be where Shawna or Pedro lives. In a hindsight voiceover, Shawna says, “We didn’t know it yet, [but] the summer I got breasts was the same summer I fought vampires.” That’s the first sign that this movie about a teenage girl was written by men.

Before the part of the movie happens where Shawna and Pedro fight vampires, their biggest worries are about school and their families. Shawna says she won’t try out for the school’s dance team because “90% of the girls they pick are Creole because of a certain look.” In other words, they look light-skinned or biracial.

Meanwhile, Pedro is a track athlete who’s been offered a full athletic scholarship to a prestigious boarding school in Texas, but Pedro doesn’t want to go because he says that doesn’t want to go to a school that has a lot of white people. He also says that he doesn’t want to move far away from his family in New Orleans. In other words, Shawn and Pedro deprive themselves of opportunities and want to blame their self-sabatoging on other people. Immediately, viewers can see how annoying these two characters are going to be with this negative attitude.

And it gets worse. Shawna has a crush on a good-looking and popular student named Chris Thompson (played by Mason Beauchamp), but she believes she doesn’t have a chance with him because she thinks that Chris is out of her league. Why? Shawna worries that her skin might be too dark for him. It doesn’t help that Shawna’s older brother Jamal (played by Frankie Smith) tells her that Chris prefers “Creole girls.” Jamal also taunts Shawna for her skin color by calling her “Wesley Snipes with braids.”

The negative stereotypes continue. Shawna and Jamal’s mother Denise (played by Kenneisha Thompson) lives in a separate household because she’s a drug addict. The filmmakers have Denise live in a “ghetto” building in a “ghetto” part of town. There is absolutely no good reason for why the filmmakers made Shawna’s mother be a drug addict, except to reinforce negative stereotypes that most African American kids have a parent who’s a drug addict and/or a criminal. In reality, that stereotype is not true for most African American kids and most African American parents.

Shawn and Jamal’s father Steven (played by Derek Roberts) has full custody and is raising Shawn and Jamal as a single parent. There’s a scene where Shawna visits her mother, who seems more concerned about how much money she can get from Shawna than spending quality time with Shawna. And since “Black as Night” is a movie has no use for showing any African American woman as a positive female role model for Shawna, viewers shouldn’t be surprised to find out what happens to Denise.

Meanwhile, community activists are protesting the impending demolition of the Ombreaux housing projects to make way for the construction of higher-priced residential buildings. The reconstruction will displace low-income residents, who won’t be able to afford the new housing that will be built. What does this all have to do with the vampire story in “Black as Night”? It’s because homeless or low-income African Americans in the area are being turned into vampires, as shown in the movie’s opening scene.

The “Black as Night” plot has a few twists and turns that aren’t very imaginative. But it’s enough to say that Shawna has very personal reasons for the “race against time” to find the head vampire to kill. Keith David appears toward the end of the movie as a character named Babineaux, who holds the key to the mystery.

Meanwhile, Shawna and Pedro enlist the help of another teen named Granya (played by Abbie Gayle), who’s the leader of a vampire book club for other teenage girls. Shawn and Pedro need Granya to teach them about how to hunt vampires. Pedro and Shawna make a lot of snarky racist comments about Granya because she’s white and comes from a well-to-do family—as if those are good-enough reasons to automatically ridicule someone.

Anyone who watches “Black as Night” has to endure a lot of bratty teen talk and politically correct preaching that tries too hard to make this low-quality horror flick look like it has a social conscience. It’s all so fake because of all the reverse racism that is condoned and celebrated in this movie. That’s not to say that the movie shouldn’t acknowledge that white supremacists exist, but the movie is unrelenting in repeating Shawna’s and Pedro’s belief that all white people are racists until proven otherwise. That belief is racist too.

The acting in “Black as Night” isn’t very impressive. Cooper shows potential if she’s given better characters to play. The rest of the cast members either play stereotypes or characters with bland and forgettable personalities. Shawna is supposed to be a hero, but the filmmakers have this misguided belief that it’s heroic to make African Americans blame everything on white supremacy. It’s an oversimplified and irresponsible portrayal about the complex issues surrounding racism and colorism. And it’s an understatement to say that this horror movie badly mishandles these issues.

The answer to the movie’s vampire mystery is a complete cop-out that just reinforces negative stereotypes of African Americans. The final battle scene isn’t very creative and actually quite irritating because the characters make wisecracking jokes during this fight. It’s one of many examples of how “Black as Night” can’t decide if it wants to be a social justice horror movie or a comedic horror movie. Trying to be both at the same time just cancels any credibility of either intention.

And arguably worst of all, “Black as Night” has an unbelievably weak and moronic ending. There are at least a dozen better ways that the movie could have ended. The ending is so bad, it’s like the filmmakers wanted to give a middle finger to viewers who wasted their time watching this smug trash dump of a film. If movie fans want to see a quality horror movie, then the best way that they can give a middle finger back to this filmmaker contempt of viewers is to avoid watching “Black as Night.”

Prime Video premiered “Black as Night” on October 1, 2021.

Review: ‘Bingo Hell,’ starring Adriana Barraza, L. Scott Caldwell, Richard Brake, Clayton Landey, Jonathan Medina, Bertila Damas and Grover Coulson

December 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Richard Brake in “Bingo Hell” (Photo by Brian Roedel/Amazon Content Services)

“Bingo Hell”

Directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional U.S. city of Oak Springs, the horror film “Bingo Hell” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Latino, white, African American and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A working-class city affected by gentrification gets targeted by a sinister gambling mogul, who promises to make people rich by playing bingo. 

Culture Audience: “Bingo Hell” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching horror movies that put more emphasis on campiness than being scary.

Clayton Landey, Bertila Damas, Adriana Barraza, L. Scott Caldwell and Grover Coulson in “Bingo Hell” (Photo by Brian Roedel/Amazon Content Services)

“Bingo Hell” takes a good concept for a horror movie and squanders it on a cheap-looking flick that’s short on scares and too heavy on campiness. It’s like a very inferior episode of “Tales From the Crypt” but made into a movie. Not even the charismatic talent of “Babel” Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza can save this misguided and monotonous film, because the “Bingo Hell” filmmakers make her protagonist character into a simplistic and annoying parody of a busybody senior citizen.

“Bingo Hell” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. The movie touches on issues that many underprivileged people of color face when they are priced out of neighborhoods that become gentrified. However, this social issue is flung by the wayside when the movie devolves into a predictable and dull story about a demon taking over a community, culminating in a badly staged showdown with no surprises.

Gigi Saul Guerrero directed “Bingo Hell” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Shane McKenzie and Perry Blackshear. For Hulu’s “Into the Dark” horror anthology series (another Blumhouse production), Guerrero directed and co-wrote 2019’s “Culture Shock,” which did a much better job of combining horror with socioeconomic issues of race and privilege in America. One of the worst aspects of “Bingo Hell” is the movie’s musical score, which sounds like irritating sitcom music. The score music (by Chase Horseman) is very ill-suited for a horror movie that’s supposed to be terrifying.

In “Bingo Hell,” Barraza plays a widow named Lupita, a feisty, longtime resident of the fictional U.S. city called Oak Springs. Most of Oak Springs’ residents are low-income, working-class people. Senior citizens and people of color are a large percentage of the city’s population. Lupita, who lives by herself, has been getting letters in the mail from real-estate developers asking her to sell her home, but she refuses.

As an example of how she feels about being unwilling to sell her home, an early scene in the movie shows Lupita getting one of these letters, from a company called Torregano Real Estate. She takes a lit cigar and stubs it on the letter. Lupita rants to anyone who listens that no amount of money can make her sell her home. She also doesn’t like that some of her friends have taken offers to sell their homes, and she fears that more of her neighborhood friends will also sell their homes and move away.

And if it isn’t made clear enough that Lupita hates that her neighborhood is being gentrified, when she walks down a street and sees a young hipster woman drinking coffee, Lupita deliberately bumps into the woman so that she spills the coffee. Lupita pretends to be sorry for this “accident,” but she really isn’t sorry. She has a smug grin on her face, as if she’s glad that that she caused this mishap. Lupita is a senior citizen in her 60s, but she has the emotional maturity of a 16-year-old.

Lupita is a stereotypical nosy old lady who has to be in everybody else’s business because she has too much time on her hands. One by one, she visits her four closest confidants. Yolanda (played by Bertila Demas) is a friendly owner of a hair salon, where gossipy grandmother Dolores (played by L. Scott Caldwell) is a regular customer. Just like Lupita, Dolores says she doesn’t want to sell her house.

Clarence (played by Grover Coulson) is a laid-back mechanic who’s been working on one of his vintage cars for years. He’s been working on it for so long, it’s become an inside joke among these friends. Morris (played by Clayton Landey) is a “regular guy” plumber who comes into the hair salon one day to do some pipe repairs. Morris has a crush on Yolanda. Since they are both single, there’s some flirtation between them that’s not very interesting.

The community has been talking about the mysterious death of a widower named Mario (played by David Jensen), who is shown dying in the movie’s opening scene. He is sitting at a table in his home with a crazed look on his face, as he says: “I sold the house to him. I love him.”

A sinister-sounding male voice in the distance can be heard saying, “She would be so proud,” in reference to Mario’s late wife Patricia. Mario suddenly begins gorging on bingo balls until he chokes and dies. Meanwhile, a suitcase of cash is seen nearby in the room where Mario has died. All of these are obvious clues about what’s to come later in the story.

Meanwhile, Dolores has been having some family drama at home. Her rebellious teenage grandson Caleb (played by Joshua Caleb Johnson) and Caleb’s single mother Raquel (played by Kelly Murtagh) have come to stay with Dolores because Raquel has been having financial problems. Dolores’ son is Caleb’s father, who is described in the movie as a deadbeat dad who is not involved in raising Caleb.

Raquel and Dolores frequently clash because Dolores thinks that Raquel is a terrible mother who’s too lenient with Caleb (who’s about 15 or 16), while Raquel thinks Dolores is too strict and a failure as a mother because Dolores’ son turned out to be an irresponsible person. The movie wastes a lot of time with this family squabbling. The only purpose is to show that Raquel is money-hungry but she’s too lazy to want to find a job, which is an attitude that affects her decisions later in the movie.

It’s also problematic that the one character in the movie who’s a young African American male is portrayed as someone who commits crimes. Caleb’s misdeeds include breaking into cars. It’s such a lazy and unnecessary negative stereotype that is over-used in movies and TV. This gross stereotype doesn’t accurately represent the reality that most African American teens are not troublemaking criminals.

Dolores spends a lot of time at Oak Springs Community Center East, where she and some of her friends like to play bingo. The community center is also a place for support-group meetings. Eric (played by Jonathan Medina) is a local man in his 30s who leads a support group meeting.

Lupita invites Eric to the next bingo game, but he declines, by saying: “Bingo is not my thing. Maybe in 50 years, when I’m your age.” Eric isn’t disrespectful to Lupita, because he calls Lupita and Dolores “legends” of Oak Springs. Lupita feels good enough about the community center that when she finds a $100 bill on the street (the bill is covered with a mysterious white gummy substance), she donates the $100 to the community center by dropping the bill in a donation box.

Not long after this act of generosity, a big black Cadillac shows up in town. The driver calls himself Mr. Big (played by Richard Brake), a gambling mogul who speaks in an exaggerated Southern drawl and has an evil smirk. Mr. Big has come to town because he’s opening Mr. Big’s Bingo, a gambling hall specifically for bingo games.

Mr. Big talks in the type of grandiose clichés that you might expect from a carnival huckster or an infomercial hawker. He shouts to a crowd in Oak Springs: “They say that money can’t buy happiness! I disagree! You know what kinds of people believe this nonsense? Losers! Now tell me, Oak Springs, are you losers?”

Mr. Big makes a big splash in the community by showing off his wealth and with a flashy ad campaign where he promises that people can win thousands of dollars per game at Mr. Big’s Bingo. After this bingo hall opens, people in the community who play at Mr. Big’s Bingo inevitably get greedy and competitive. Because it’s a horror movie, you know where this is going, of course.

The horror part of “Bingo Hell” is frustratingly undercut by hammy acting from Brake and the aforementioned sitcom-like musical score. Meanwhile, the characters in the movie act increasingly like caricatures, as the cast members give average or subpar performances. What started out as a promising portrait of how gentrification and greed can cause horror in a community turns into a silly gorefest with ultimately nothing meaningful to say and nothing truly frightening to show.

Prime Video premiered “Bingo Hell” on October 1, 2021.

Review: ‘Being the Ricardos,’ starring Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem

December 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in “Being the Ricardos” (Photo by Glenn Wilson/Amazon Content Services)

“Being the Ricardos”

Directed by Aaron Sorkin

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1952, mostly in the Los Angeles area, the dramatic film “Being the Ricardos” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: “I Love Lucy” co-stars and spouses Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz have conflicts in their marriage over her suspicions that he’s been cheating on her; how they should handle a possible scandal that Ball has been labeled a Communist; and what decisions should be made about creative control of the show. 

Culture Audience: “Being the Ricardos” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “I Love Lucy”; “Being the Ricardos” co-stars Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem; writer/director Aaron Sorkin; and movies about the Communist witch hunt/Red Scare that affected Hollywood in the 1950s.

Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda and Nicoel Kidman in “Being the Ricardos” (Photo by Glenn Wilson/Amazon Content Services)

The very talkative drama “Being the Ricardos” skillfully chronicles the power struggles and conflicts affecting the marriage of Lucille Ball and Dezi Arnaz during one tension-filled week of 1952. Because this movie was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (former showrunner of “The West Wing”), expect to see a lot of themes about people feeling persecuted by a government that oversteps its bounds on personal freedoms. All of the cast members give admirable performances, despite Sorkin giving his movies a self-conscious “showboating” and “awards bait” tone that is sometimes distracting.

“Being the Ricardos” is the third movie directed and written by Sorkin, who previously helmed 2017’s “Molly’s Game” and 2020’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” All three movies are based on real people and true events. And all three movies have government scrutiny as major elements of the story. Ball and Arnaz are not in danger of going to prison like the protagonists of “Molly’s Game” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” However, this showbiz couple will face a different type of imprisonment of “Hollywood jail,” if they are labeled as “Communist traitors” during the Cold War era in the U.S., where being labeled a Communist could derail careers and ruin lives. In the movie, Ball is exposed in a newspaper article as having registered to vote years before as a member of the Communist Party.

Because the movie’s main storyline takes place over one week, “Being the Ricardos” uses flashbacks to fill in some of the context blanks and give viewers some background on the relationship between Ball (played by Nicole Kidman) and Arnaz (played by Javier Bardem), who got married in 1940. At the time that they met, Ball was a B-level actress doing mostly supporting roles in movies and reluctantly performing in radio. Arnaz was a Cuban immigrant who was leader of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra, where he played conga drums and sang lead vocals.

According to the way their courtship is portrayed, Ball was the one who was wary of commitment at first because of Arnaz’s reputation for being a playboy and because she didn’t want to give up her independence. However, Arnaz quickly charmed Ball, and they married after less than a year of dating. He constantly flattered her with praise about her talent and encouraged her to seek projects where she could be the star, not a supporting actress in mostly forgettable roles.

When television came along as a relatively new medium for entertainment, the timing was right for Ball to become a star on TV. She got an offer to adapt her comedy radio show “My Favorite Husband” into a TV series. She agreed, on the condition that her real-life husband would co-star in this comedy TV series that was loosely based on their real-life marriage. And that’s how “I Love Lucy” was born in 1951, with Ball and Arnaz portraying spouses named Lucy Ricardo and Ricky Ricardo. In 1951, Ball was 40 years old, and Arnaz was 34.

Ball and Arnaz maintained a great deal of creative control of the show through their company Desilu Productions. (They were both had the title of executive produder.) “I Love Lucy” was televised in the U.S. on CBS, which was owned by Westinghouse at the time. Much of “Being the Ricardos” shows the conflicts between the couple and executives from CBS, Westinghouse or show corporate sponsor Philip Morris (which was a politically conservative company), as well as with some members of the show’s creative team.

Sorkin took an unusual approach by having this particular week of Ball’s and Arnaz’s lives narrated in the 2000s decade by three people who were key players in the “I Love Lucy Show”: executive producer/head writer Jess Oppenheimer (played by John Rubinstein in the 2000s and Tony Hale in the 1950s); writer Madelyn Pugh (played by Linda Lavin in the 2000s and Alia Shawkat in the 1950s); and writer Bob Carroll Jr. (played by Ronny Cox in the 2000s and Jake Lacy in the 1950s). It’s a good idea that mostly works well for the structure of the story, mainly because having the movie narrated by Ball or Arnaz might veer into unreliable narration.

People who watch “Being the Ricardos” should not expect it to be a series of re-enactments from “I Love Lucy” episodes. There are brief parts of the movie that show a few iconic scenes from “I Love Lucy,” most notably the episode titled “Lucy’s Italian Movie,” where Lucy goes to Rome and is comedically clumsy when stomping grapes in a vat. It’s in these sitcom episode recreation scenes where Kidman stands out the most in a stellar interpretation of Ball.

Ball had a fun-loving persona on-screen that was very different from her hard-driving, demanding and competitive personality off-screen. The movie shows that this real-life personality was formed in large part because of Ball’s lifelong insecurities of feeling that she could never really have a place that she could call a permanent home. In her childhood, her family moved around a lot. At one point in her childhood, Ball was sent to live with her stepfather’s parents. And when she was 14, she moved to New York City by herself to pursue a professional career in the entertainment business.

There are many hints that Ball’s unstable childhood contributed to her rebellious nature. In a scene where she’s on one of her first dates with Arnaz (he teaches her how to rumba), he asks her what she’s doing there. She says it’s because she was kicked out of acting school in New York. The morning after they first spend the night together, she and Arnaz are in bed and she nonchalantly tells Arnaz that she has a fiancé. She then calls this fiancé on the phone to and break up with him. During this brief breakup conversation, she tells the fiancé that she doesn’t love him and she doesn’t like the way he treats her.

Arnaz had his own issues, as a Cuban immigrant who had to deal with racism in the United States, but these racism issues are mostly ignored in the movie. He was one of the first Latino stars of American television, but the movie implies that it’s because he was married to a white woman. Because they were a power couple, Arnaz was able to get a lot of access and clout that he might not have gotten if he had been married to someome who wasn’t white. In the 1950s, there were no American TV shows starring non-white actresses.

Whereas Ball longed to have a stable home life where she felt truly settled down, Arnaz wasn’t willing to give up his nomadic life as a touring performer. During the years that “I Love Lucy” was on the air (1951 to 1957), he continued his music career with constant touring. Arnaz and his band (which was renamed the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra) also did regular performances, often five times week, at venues in the Los Angeles area, such as the nightclub Ciro’s. (Bardem does his own singing in the movie—and he’s quite good.)

There are three issues that Ball and Arnaz contend with during the course of the movie. First, the press (namely, gossip columnist Walter Winchell) has unearthed information that Ball is registered to vote as a member of the Communist Party. This possibly career-ending information is reported during the height of the Red Scare in America, where people suspected of being Communists were blackballed in their industries and often had their lives ruined.

Ball has an explanation for being a registered Communist: When she was younger, her stepfather Fred was a Communist. When it came time for her to register to vote, she just “checked a box” that happed to say “Communist,” in order to please Fred. Ball assures anyone who asks that she’s not a practicing Communist and doesn’t believe in the Communist Party. She quips, “Back then, being a Communist was no worse than being a Republican.”

However, she and Arnaz disagree on how honest she should be about her decision to check that Communist Party box on her voter registration. Arnaz thinks that Ball should tell people that she never intended to check the box, while Ball thinks that she should tell people that she did intend to check it, but there was she never had any real loyalty to the Communist Party. The potential scandal doesn’t really gain traction, despite Winchell’s repeated efforts. The movie spends a lot of time on Arnaz trying to be the protective husband in preventing Ball from being hurt by the Communist accusations.

Second, Arnaz’s suspected infidelities had become fodder for the tabloid press, which often published photos of him in the company of other women while he was married to Ball. And those issues are always brewing in the couple’s turbulent relationship. Smooth-talking Arnaz always has an explanation that Ball seems desperate to believe. The movie gives the impression that Arnaz was relieved that the possible Communist scandal was distracting his wife from the media reports that he was cheating on her.

I’s eventually revealed that Arnaz isn’t even sleeping at their house and spends part of the week in a hotel. His reason for staying is a hotel is that when he works late (up until 4 a.m.) for his band performances, he doesn’t want to disturb his wife when coming home from the club. She has to get up early to be on the TV set before dawn. Arnaz is rarely seen during the scenes where the cast is doing table readings of the script.

At one point in the movie, Ball mentions that her work schedule and Arnaz’s work schedule means that they hardly spend time together at home. It fuels her insecurities over never having a traditional home life. And so, it’s quite “on the nose,” when Arnaz utters the famous Ricky Ricardo line, “Lucy, I’m home,” during filming of an ” Love Lucy” episode, and the movie shows Ball giving a big pause and forgetting her lines, as if she’s triggered by these words.

Third, there were issues of control over the content and direction of “I Love Lucy,” which was on television at a time when married couples weren’t allowed to be seen sleeping in the same bed, and pregnancies were considered a taboo topic for scripted TV series. As many people know, Ball and Arnaz changed the rules of how pregnancies were depicted in scripted series. “Being the Ricardos” shows the couple insisting that Ball’s real-life pregnancy be written into “I Love Lucy” episodes, with Lucy Ricardo also being pregnant in the same timeline.

But the battle with CBS, Westinghouse and Philip Morris over this pregnancy storyline got even more contentious when Ball and Arnaz also demanded that there should be an entire episode about the birth of the child. It was unheard-of at the time, and the corporate executives were certain that audiences would be offended. Instead, the birth of Lucy and Ricky’s child (Ricky Jr.) became the highest-rated TV episode at the time. (In real life, Ball gave birth to Desi Arnaz Jr. on January 19, 1953, and he played the role of Ricky Jr. on the show.)

“Being the Richardos” also explores the dynamics of the co-stars who played the Ricardos’ two best friends Fred Mertz and Ethel Mertz on “I Love Lucy.” In the role of Fred was William Frawley (played by J.K. Simmons), a cranky alcoholic, who often clashed with Ball on how he should act in scenes. In the role of Ethel was Vivian Vance (played by Nina Arianda, who gives a fantastic performance), who was a close friend of Ball’s in real life, but who resented that Ball wanted to keep Ethel as a frumpy and slightly overweight character.

There’s a series of scenes in “Being the Ricardos” where Vance figures out that Ball came up with an underhanded scheme to try to prevent Vance from looking thin and attractive. It starts when Vance is told by a wardrobe person that her Ethel character can’t wear a fancy gown in a scene, as originally planned. Ethel has to wear a dowdy dress instead. Vance is disappointed by this wardrobe change, but she doesn’t inquire too much over who made this decision.

But slowly, the clues starts to add up. Ball makes a point of commenting to Vance that she’s noticed that Vance has lost weight. Not long afterward, on another day, Pugh arrives in Vance’s dressing room with a calorie-heavy breakfast for Vance to eat, but Vance did not request this meal. Why is a show’s writer doing the work of a production assistant of bringing her breakfast? And who ordered that this meal be delivered to Vance? Vance has an “a-ha” moment and confronts Ball about this intention to sabotage Vance’s weight.

Die-hard fans of Ball already know many behind-the-scenes stories about how she could be this catty and insecure with Vance, because Ball did not want to be outshined by anyone (especally another woman) on Ball’s TV shows. Even though Vance and Ball were close friends, “Being the Ricardos” makes it clear that Ball’s top priority in life was herself. That didn’t mean that she was incapable of love but that she learned from an early age that self-preservation is the best way to get through life.

However, Vance is not a shy and introverted co-star. She expresses her annoyance at some of these indignities of being treated like a subservient “second banana.” But ultimately, Vance knows who’s in charge and has no choice but to go along with executive decisions, in order to keep her job. When it comes down to it, Vance values her friendship with Ball more than any ego competitions that they might have had over their very different roles in “I Love Lucy.”

“Being the Ricardos” has all the elements of an awards-bait movie. And there’s not a bad performance or technical aspect in the end results. But somehow, everything still feels too staged. And just like Sorkin’s other movie screenplays, “Being the Ricardos” can get overly talkative to the point where it might bore some viewers in certain parts of the film. The movie total running time (125 minutes) could have been trimmed a little more. For example, there’s an unnecessary flashback scene where Ball finds out that she got a co-starring role with Henry Fonda in the 1942 movie “The Big Street,” after Rita Hayworth dropped out of the role.

Some viewers might also be distracted by the fact that when Ball is not filming her TV shows, her famous bright red, tightly curled hair is not the type of hairstyle that she has for most of the movie. Instead, for most of “Being the Ricardos,” Ball is seen wearing a wavy hairstyle with a strawberry blonde shade. In flashback scenes showing her pre- “I Love Lucy” courtship with Arnaz, Ball has hair is dark auburn red. Because Ball’s curly, bright red hair was such a big part of her her image, when she doesn’t have this hairstyle, Kidman looks a lot less convincing as Ball.

During table reads of the episode scripts and in meetings with executives, Ball is assertive in expressing what she wants. She and Arnaz also clash with Oppenheimer over his direction of the show. These table-reading scenes also give some insight into the opposite personalities of Rawley and Vance. When Vance expresses sympathetic dismay over teenage actor Rusty Hamer was forced to sign a loyalty pledge after being accused of a Communist, Rawley is gruffly unmoved because Rawley thinks that all Communists in America should be severely punished.

There are hints of domestic abuse in the couple’s relationship. During an early scene, Ball can be heard off-screen, hitting Arnaz in anger and yelling at him. And the older Pugh says in hindsight of the couple’s marriage: “They were either tearing their heads off, or tearing their clothes off.”

Some viewers might want to see detailed depictions of this behind-the-scenes marital strife. But when you consider that Lucie Arnaz, the daughter of Ball and Desi Arnaz, is an executive producer of “Being the Ricardos,” graphic scenes of domestic abuse just weren’t going to be this movie. Lucie Arnaz has gone on record saying that she enthusiastically approves of Kidman’s portrayal of her mother.

“Being the Ricardos” certainly as its high points when it comes to acting and recreating the fashion and locations depicted in the movie. And yet, there still seem to be some things that seem left out of the movie because maybe the family members didn’t want to tarnish the legacy with some ugly secrets. If audiences know before seeing the movie that it won’t be a comprehensive history of Ball, Desi Arnaz or “I Love Lucy,” but rather that it’s a snapshot of a challenging period in the couple’s marriage, then there’s a better chance of enjoying “Being the Ricardos.”

Amazon Studios will release “Being the Ricardos” in U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021. Prime Video will premiere the movie on December 21, 2021.

Review: ‘Annette,’ starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg

August 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in “Annette” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Annette”

Directed by Leos Carax

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and various other parts of the world, the musical “Annette” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the wealthy and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A seemingly mismatched stand-up comedian and an opera singer have a passionate romance, get married, and have a daughter named Annette, but then a major tragedy changes their lives forever.

Culture Audience: “Annette” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Sparks, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, as well as people who like to indulge in pretentious musicals with a weak plot.

Cast members of “Annette,” including front row, from left to right, Simon Helberg, Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver; and second row, Russell Mael (behind Cotillard) and Ron Mael, pictured at far right. (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Don’t believe the hype. The musical “Annette” is one of those annoying, self-indulgent movies that some people will automatically praise just because it looks European and artsy. Underneath the pretentious sheen is a boring and ludicrous story with forgettable songs and a baby that’s really an animatronic doll that looks like a cleaned-up sister of Chucky from the “Child’s Play” horror franchise.

Directed by Leos Carax, “Annette” has an abysmal screenplay and disappointing music written by brothers Russell Mael and Ron Mael, also known as the experimental pop duo Sparks. The Mael brothers have brief cameos in the movie because they’re not very good actors. Visually, the movie looks better than the actual material because the filmmakers had the budget to build some elaborate set pieces and film the movie in Los Angeles, Belgium and Germany.

Here’s how you know if a musical is good or not: Are at least half of the songs memorable? Do the songs fit well with the story? And do the actors look convincing when they perform the songs? If the answer is no to any of these questions, then the musical isn’t very good and could be downright lousy. A lot of people who don’t care about going along with pseudo-hipster groupthink are going to say “no” to “Annette.”

Some credit should be given to Carax for directing “Annette” with gusto and for choosing some noteworthy designs in production and costumes. But so much of “Annette” looks and sounds like a tacky regional theater production that ended up being made into a movie because the filmmakers convinced people with deep pockets to throw money at this train wreck. Just because a movie tries very hard to be “avant-garde” doesn’t automatically mean it’s supposed to be good art.

“Annette” starts out promising in the first half of the movie when it’s about the romance between edgy stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (played by Adam Driver) and elegant opera diva Ann Defrasnoux (played by Marion Cotillard), who live in Los Angeles and are both big stars in their respective careers. But it all goes downhill in the second half of the movie, when themes of death and greed are monotonously repeated until “Annette” ends with a whimper instead of a bang. Simon Helberg, who looks very uncomfortable and out-of-place in this musical, depicts an unnamed supporting character who goes from being an accompanist for Ann to being the conductor of an orchestra.

The best parts of “Annette” are seeing Henry perform on stage. Henry’s stand-up act can best be described as if Mitch Hedberg and the late David Foster Wallace decided to collaborate on a stand-up comedy routine and hire some backup singers. Henry’s material is both self-deprecating and condescending to the audience members, who do group chants and or indivdual shouting in response to what Henry says during his act. However, he has full command of the stage and is utterly fascinating to watch. Ann (who is French, just like Cotillard is in real life) is somewhat of a generic opera singer. No one will be be winning any major awards for acting or singing in this movie.

Henry and Ann’s relationship is breathlessly followed by the tabloid media. Ann and Henry get engaged, then married, and then they become parents to a daughter named Annette. And seriously: This baby-turned-toddler is depicted by a creepy-looking animatronic doll with terrible visual effects. It will get some laughs at first, but after a while, this unnatural-looking doll is just an awful distraction.

The last half of the movie has too much spoiler information to describe, but it’s enough to say that the movie gets a lot worse and reaches the point of no return from stupidity when Henry quits stand-up comedy to become a “stage dad” manager to Annette. There are some tragic crimes and a continual pile-on of horrifically bad dialogue. Not even the acting talent of Driver and Cotillard can save this overrated mess of a movie. Driver is also one of the producers of “Annette,” so he bears more responsibility than the other cast members for how this move turned out to be a disappointing slog of irritating and egocentric posturing.

During the latter half of the movie, Driver and Helberg barely even sing. What a ripoff. By the end of the movie, most viewers might remember one or two songs. There are some musicals that have plots and conversations that are mediocre, but the music is so great, it transcends the dialogue and resonates with audiences to the point where people are recommending the soundtrack to others. That’s not the case with “Annette,” which will find a specific audience, but none of the songs from this movie will have a major cultural impact.

You know a musical is bad when the two lead actors (Driver and Cotillard) are respected talents who should elevate the material, but hardly anyone in pop culture is raving about the songs in “Annette,” except the predictable niche audience of Sparks fans. None of the “Annette” filmmakers should pretend that they didn’t want this musical movie to be popular. If they wanted this movie to be underground, they wouldn’t have had corporate behemoth Amazon pay for it, and they wouldn’t have had a splashy world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Simply put: “Annette” looks and sounds like a musical experiment that ultimately stumbles artistically, but some people will still love it because they’re star-struck by the famous people involved in making this movie.

Amazon Studios released “Annette” in select U.S. cinemas on August 6, 2021. Prime Video premiered the movie on August 20, 2021.

Amazon aquires MGM for $8.45 billion; deal includes James Bond, Rocky, Pink Panther movies

May 26, 2021

The following is a press release from Amazon:

 Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) and MGM today announced that they have entered into a definitive merger agreement under which Amazon will acquire MGM for a purchase price of $8.45 billion. MGM has nearly a century of filmmaking history and complements the work of Amazon Studios, which has primarily focused on producing TV show programming. Amazon will help preserve MGM’s heritage and catalog of films, and provide customers with greater access to these existing works. Through this acquisition, Amazon would empower MGM to continue to do what they do best: great storytelling.

“MGM has a vast catalog with more than 4,000 films—12 Angry Men, Basic Instinct, Creed, James Bond, Legally Blonde, Moonstruck, Poltergeist, Raging Bull, Robocop, Rocky, Silence of the Lambs, Stargate, Thelma & Louise, Tomb Raider, The Magnificent SevenThe Pink Panther, The Thomas Crown Affair, and many other icons—as well as 17,000 TV shows—including Fargo, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Vikings—that have collectively won more than 180 Academy Awards and 100 Emmys,” said Mike Hopkins, Senior Vice President of Prime Video and Amazon Studios. “The real financial value behind this deal is the treasure trove of IP in the deep catalog that we plan to reimagine and develop together with MGM’s talented team. It’s very exciting and provides so many opportunities for high-quality storytelling.”

“It has been an honor to have been a part of the incredible transformation of Metro Goldwyn Mayer. To get here took immensely talented people with a true belief in one vision. On behalf of the Board, I would like to thank the MGM team who have helped us arrive at this historic day,” said Kevin Ulrich, Chairman of the Board of Directors of MGM. “I am very proud that MGM’s Lion, which has long evoked the Golden Age of Hollywood, will continue its storied history, and the idea born from the creation of United Artists lives on in a way the founders originally intended, driven by the talent and their vision. The opportunity to align MGM’s storied history with Amazon is an inspiring combination.”

Completion of this transaction is subject to regulatory approvals and other customary closing conditions.

About Amazon

Amazon is guided by four principles: customer obsession rather than competitor focus, passion for invention, commitment to operational excellence, and long-term thinking. Amazon strives to be Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company, Earth’s Best Employer, and Earth’s Safest Place to Work. Customer reviews, 1-Click shopping, personalized recommendations, Prime, Fulfillment by Amazon, AWS, Kindle Direct Publishing, Kindle, Career Choice, Fire tablets, Fire TV, Amazon Echo, Alexa, Just Walk Out technology, Amazon Studios, and The Climate Pledge are some of the things pioneered by Amazon. For more information, visit amazon.com/about and follow @AmazonNews.

About MGM

MGM is a leading entertainment company focused on the production and global distribution of film and television content across all platforms. The company owns one of the world’s deepest libraries of premium film and television content. For more information, visit www. MGM.com.

Cautionary Statement Regarding Amazon Forward-Looking Statements

Amazon’s statements related to the proposed acquisition of MGM contain forward-looking statements, including statements regarding expected benefits of the acquisition. Actual results could differ materially from those projected or forecast in the forward-looking statements. Factors that could cause actual results to differ materially include the following: the conditions to the completion of the transaction may not be satisfied, or the regulatory approvals required for the transaction may not be obtained on the terms expected, on the anticipated schedule, or at all; closing of the transaction may not occur or may be delayed, either as a result of litigation related to the transaction or otherwise; Amazon may be unable to achieve the anticipated benefits of the transaction; revenues following the transaction may be lower than expected; the duration and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, including any recurrence, may affect the results of operations; operating costs, customer loss, and business disruption (including, without limitation, difficulties in maintaining relationships with employees, partners, and commercial counterparties) may be greater than expected; Amazon may assume unexpected risks and liabilities; completing the transaction may distract Amazon’s management from other important matters; and the other factors discussed in “Risk Factors” in Amazon’s Annual Report on Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2020 and in Amazon’s other filings with the SEC, which are available at http://www.sec.gov. Amazon assumes no obligation to update the information in this press release, except as otherwise required by law. Readers are cautioned not to place undue reliance on these forward-looking statements that speak only as of the date hereof.

Review: ‘Coming 2 America,’ starring Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Jermaine Fowler, Leslie Jones, KiKi Layne, Shari Headley and Wesley Snipes

March 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Bella Murphy, Akiley Love, Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy, Shari Headley, KiKi Layne and Paul Bates in “Coming 2 America” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Paramount Pictures/Prime Video)

“Coming 2 America”

Directed by Craig Brewer

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional African country of Zamunda and briefly in the New York City borough of Queens, the comedy sequel “Coming 2 America” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with a few white people) representing African royalty, working-class Africans and Americans of various classes.

Culture Clash: An African royal, who is shamed for not having a male heir, finds out that he has an illegitimate American son, who is brought to Africa to be groomed as an heir to the throne.

Culture Audience: “Coming 2 America” will appeal primarily to fans of 1988’s “Coming to America,” but this sequel lacks the charm of the original movie.

Wesley Snipes, Jermaine Fowler and Leslie Jones in “Coming 2 America” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Paramount Pictures/Prime Video)

The comedy film “Coming 2 America,” which is the sequel to 1988’s “Coming to America,” is a perfect example of a movie that was not worth the wait. It’s a dull and disappointing mess that trashes or wastes the character relationships that made the “Coming to America” a crowd-pleasing hit. Co-stars Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, who were a dynamic duo in “Coming to America,” don’t have very many scenes together in “Coming 2 America.”

The new characters that are introduced in “Coming 2 America” are bland or obnoxious. An endearing romance/courtship that was at the heart of “Coming to America” is largely absent from “Coming 2 America,” which rushes a predictable relationship between a young couple who have almost no believable chemistry with each other. And “Coming 2 America” is filled with misogyny and racist stereotypes about black people, from a mostly white team of filmmakers.

The title of this dreadful and boring sequel shouldn’t have been “Coming 2 America.” It should have been titled “Shucking and Jiving in Zamunda.” That’s essentially what all the main characters do throughout this idiotic movie that takes place mostly in the fictional African country of Zamunda, not in America.

The “fish out of water” premise of culture shock that worked so well in “Coming to America” is muddled and mishandled in “Coming 2 America,” which was directed by Craig Brewer. This entire film looks like a tacky TV-movie instead of what it should have been: a cinematic triumph in comedy. (It’s easy to see why Paramount Pictures chose not to release “Coming 2 America” in theaters and sold it to Prime Video instead.) It doesn’t help that the movie’s musical score is schlocky sitcom music by Jermaine Stegall. Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield wrote the awful and lazy screenplay for “Coming 2 America.”

Murphy and Hall do their expected schticks of portraying various characters (some in prosthetic makeup), just like they did in “Coming to America.” It brings some mildly amusing moments that are fleeting and recycled. (The barbershop scene is back, and it’s not as funny as it was in the first “Coming to America” movie.) But these moments are not enough to save “Coming 2 America,” which is ruined by too many stale jokes that would’ve been outdated in 1988.

In fact, there’s almost nothing modern about “Coming 2 America,” except for some of the contemporary costumes. The song selections and musical numbers that are used as filler in this movie are straight out of the early 1990s, as if the filmmakers are trying to relive the music of their youthful days. And there are several celebrity cameos from African American entertainers, to distract from the movie’s silly plot. However, sticking a bunch of talented black people in front of the camera doesn’t make the writing and directing of “Coming 2 America” any less moronic and cliché.

In the beginning of “Coming 2 America,” Prince Akeem (played by Murphy) and his loyal sidekick/best friend Semmi (played by Hall) are living an uneventful life in Zamunda. Akeem and his American wife Lisa (played by Shari Headley)—who met, fell in love, and got married in “Coming to America”—are now celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, as well as peace and prosperity in Zamunda. Semmi is still portrayed as a bachelor who has nothing better to do with his life but to be Akeem’s glorified lackey.

Akeem and Lisa have three children, all daughters: eldest Meeka (played by KiKi Layne), who’s in her mid-to-late 20s, is the only daughter with a distinct personality, since she’s the most assertive and outspoken of the three. Middle teenage daughter Omma (played by Bella Murphy, one of Eddie Murphy’s real-life daughters) and youngest pre-teen daughter Tinashe (played by Akiley Love) don’t have much dialogue in the movie. Their only moments where they get to shine are in some choreographed fight scenes.

Lisa’s father Cleo McDowell (played by John Amos) has expanded his fast-food McDowell’s restaurant business to Zamunda. McDowell’s blatantly copies McDonald’s, even down to having a “golden arches” sign in the shape of the letter “M.” This copycat gag leads to a not-very-funny segment in the beginning of the movie about how much McDowell’s imitates McDonald’s. Cleo quips, “They’ve got Egg McMuffins. We’ve got Egg McStuffins.” That’s what’s supposed to pass as comedy in this horribly written film.

Oscar-winning “Black Panther” costume designer Ruth E. Carter did the costumes for “Coming 2 America.” The costumes in “Coming 2 America” are among the few high points of the movie. Unlike “Black Panther,” which treated its female and male characters as equals, “Coming 2 America” is a parade of misogyny that makes the female characters look inferior to the male characters in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

The running “joke” in the film is that Zamunda is a socially “backwards” country with laws where women can’t be the chief ruler of the nation, and women can’t own their own businesses. The Zamundan culture is that women exist only to cater to men. Females can’t make any big decisions without the approval of the closest patriarch in her family. It’s sexism that could be ripe for parody, if done in a funny and clever way. But “Coming 2 America” bungles it throughout the entire movie, except for the end when a predictable decision is made to resolve a certain problem related to Zamunda’s sexist laws.

That decision is rushed in toward the very last few minutes of the movie. And it looks like what it is: the filmmakers’ way of pandering to feminism. However, this fake feminist plot development doesn’t erase all the ways that “Coming 2 America” marginalizes and “dumbs down” the women in the movie in a way that’s so foul and unnecessary.

“Black Panther” proved you don’t have to make black women in an African country look like they’re incapable of being smart and strong leaders. The “Coming 2 America” filmmakers try to rip off a lot of “Black Panther’s” visual style, but it’s all a smokescreen for the way “Coming 2 America” makes the African country of Zamunda (and therefore the people who live there) look like a very ignorant culture that’s behind the times.

In “Coming 2 America,” the “rank and file” black female citizens in Zamunda are just there to literally shake their butts in the dance routines; act as servants who are required to bathe or groom the royal men; or be preoccupied with marriage and/or motherhood. Akeem is shamed and ridiculed by a rival named General Izzi (played by Wesley Snipes) because Akeem has no male heirs. Izzi is portrayed as a cartoonishly buffoon villain who’s power-hungry and jealous of Akeem’s status as a royal heir.

In order to gain power in Zamunda, Izzi would rather form some kind of alliance with Akeem, instead of fighting Akeem. When Izzi storms the royal palace with an army of men, Izzi tells Akeem: “I came here for blood, but not the murder kind. Family blood, marriage blood.” Izzi suggests that Izzi’s son Idi (played by Rotimi Akinosho) marry Meeka, but Akeem rejects the offer.

Akeem’s widower father King Jaffe Joffer (played by James Earl Jones) thinks he’s going to die soon. And the king isn’t happy that Akeem doesn’t have a son. “The throne must pass to a male heir,” King Jaffe declares. Jones, who is a majestic presence in many other movies, has his talent squandered in “Coming 2 America,” which makes him look like a sexist old fool who doesn’t think any of his granddaughters could be worthwhile leaders.

Izzi tells Akeem that it’s too bad that Akeem doesn’t have a male heir, because Izzi think his daughter Bopoto (played by Teyana Taylor) would be a perfect match for any son of Akeem’s. And just like that, Semmi and a crotchety elderly man named Baba (played by Hall, who’s made to look like a tall, African version of Gollum) tell Akeem that he actually does have a son that Akeem didn’t know about for all of these years. Akeem doesn’t really believe it, until he’s reminded of something that happened when he and Semmi were in the New York City borough of Queens, during the time that the “Coming to America” story took place.

Meanwhile, King Jaffe announces, “My funeral should be spectacular. Let’s have it now, while I’m alive.” This was apparently an excuse for the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers to have one of several dance numbers in the movie as a gimmick to fill up time.

King Jaffe’s “funeral party” features Morgan Freeman introducing performances by En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa, who perform the 1993 hit “Whatta Man.” Also performing at the party is Gladys Knight, who is forced to embarrass herself in butchering her 1973 classic “Midnight Train to Georgia” because the filmmakers made her change the song to “Midnight Train to Zamunda.” At any rate, King Jaffe dies at the party (he falls asleep and doesn’t wake up), which is a good thing for Jones, because the less screen time he has in this garbage movie, the better.

After his father’s death, Akeem becomes king, but Akeem is now desperate to find a male heir. Akeem’s son (who is constantly called a “bastard” in this movie) was the result of a one-night stand that Akeem had in Queens. “Coming 2 America” then shows how this son was conceived. Akeem and Semmi, who were in Queens to look for a woman to marry Akeem, were at a nightclub, when Semmi spotted an American woman named Mary Junson (played by Leslie Jones) at the bar. (“Coming 2 America” uses flashbacks from “Coming to America” and some visual effects to recreate this moment.)

Semmi struck up a conversation with Mary and told her that he was working for an African prince who was looking for a bride. Mary takes one look at Akeem and doesn’t need any encouragement to hook up with Akeem. She invites Akeem back to her place. And as Akeem remembers it in the present day, Mary blew smoke from marijuana (which he calls “wild herbs”) in his face, thereby impairing his judgment.

Akeem describes Mary and his sexual encounter with her in this way: “A wild boar [Mary] burst into the room and rammed me and rammed me.” The sex is shown in a flashback in a very problematic scene, because it portrays Mary as someone who sexually assaulted Akeem. He definitely wasn’t a willing partner, by the way it’s portrayed in the movie, but it’s played off as something to laugh at in the movie. It makes Mary look like she’s so desperate for sex that she will incapacitate and rape a man.

And the dialogue in this sexual assault scene is just so cringeworthy. Before Mary attacks Akeem, she says to him, “I hope you like pumpkin pie, ’cause you goin’ to get a whole slice.” Mary can’t speak proper English in the movie because the filmmakers want to make her look as dumb and uneducated as possible.

It’s also downright sexist and racist to call a black woman a “boar,” which is an animal that is an uncastrated male swine. It doesn’t make it okay if another black person says this insult, just because he was paid to say it as an actor. It should be mentioned that two out of the three screenwriters of this crappy “Coming 2 America” screenplay are white. Had there been more black people on the filmmaking team, it’s doubtful that there would have been so many insulting and offensive portrayals of black people (especially black women) in this trash dump of a movie.

Portraying Mary as a desperate sexual assaulter isn’t the only problematic thing about this character. The entire character of Mary is problematic, because it’s all about reinforcing the worst negative stereotypes that movies and TV have about black women who are single mothers: loud, crude, stupid, broke/money-hungry and promiscuous. Mary (who doesn’t seem to have a job) calls herself a “ho” multiple times in the movie.

Akeem also calls Mary a “morally bereft” woman when he describes his memory of her. And when Akeem and Semmi inevitably go back to Queens to find Mary and the mystery son, Mary isn’t sure if Akeem is the father of her child. That is, until she finds out how rich Akeem is (Semmi accidentally drops open a suitcase full of cash in front of her), and suddenly Mary can’t wait to move to Zamunda and live in the royal palace.

The filmmakers go out of their way to make Mary as mindless and vulgar as possible. When Mary goes to Zamunda and she’s served caviar, she doesn’t know what this delicacy is and calls it “black mashed potatoes.” And in another scene in the movie, Mary shouts, “I am so hungry, I could eat the ass out of a zipper!”

Mary and Akeem’s son Lavelle Junson (played by Jermaine Fowler) is a good guy overall. But the filmmakers force a negative stereotype on him, by making him yet another black male who breaks the law. Lavelle and his Uncle Reem (played by Tracy Morgan, using the same shady clown persona that he usually has in his movies and TV shows) are ticket scalpers. Clearly, the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers wanted yet another ghetto stereotype of black people who commit illegal acts to make money.

“Coming 2 America” has a very racially condescending scene of Lavelle and Reem (who is Mary’s brother) at a corporate office on Lavelle’s 30th birthday. Lavelle is at this company (a firm called Duke & Duke) to apply for some kind of computer job. Lavelle tells Reem that he’s tired of having an unstable income from ticket scalping, and he wants to earn an honest living in a steady job. Reem thinks Lavelle is a dolt for wanting to get a legitimate job, and he asks Lavelle if he’s going to use his “white voice” in the interview.

In the interview with the firm’s racist scion named Calvin Duke (played by Colin Jost), Lavelle is subjected to a barrage of bigoted assumptions that are meant to make Lavelle feel inferior. When Calvin finds out that Lavelle was raised by a single mother who’s unemployed (she got laid off from her job), Calvin makes a snide remark: “They say that not having a dominant male figure at home is detrimental to a child.” There are some more racist insults (Calvin asks Lavelle if his mother is addicted to drugs or gambling), before the interview ends predictably, with Lavelle angrily telling Calvin he doesn’t want the job.

The thing is that even though the character of Calvin is supposed to represent white elitists who are racists, the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers do everything to make a lot of the movie’s black characters (especially Mary) the very degrading stereotype that racists like Calvin have of black people. And that’s why the movie’s job interview scene is very phony in its intentions to make it look like racists are most likely to be spoiled white rich kids. The reality is that people from all walks of life can be racists.

It turns out that Lavelle isn’t going to need a job because Akeem soon finds Lavelle (who’s scalping tickets outside of Madison Square Garden), introduces himself as Lavelle’s long-lost father, and tells Lavelle that his new identity is as a wealthy royal heir in Zamunda. Lavelle says he won’t move out of New York without his mother. And quicker than you can say “stupid comedy sequel,” Lavelle and Mary are in Zamunda. And this time, the Americans are the ones who are the “fish out of water.”

Lisa isn’t too happy that Akeem has a son that they didn’t know about until recently. However, she’s willing to forgive Akeem because Lavelle was conceived before Akeem met Lisa. Someone who is even less thrilled about Lavelle is Meeka, who sees Lavelle as a threat to any leadership power she hoped to inherit as a legitimate member of this royal family. The sibling rivalry scenes predictably ensue.

Meanwhile, Lavelle meets a hair stylist named Mirembe (played by Nomzamo Mbatha), who works for the royal family. She’s single and available, so you know where this is going. Mirembe changes Lavelle’s hairstyle from the Kid ‘n Play-inspired fade that he had in Queens to a short-cropped locks hairstyle that Erik Killmonger from “Black Panther” would wear, but with a rat tail braid in the back.

Mirembe says that she would love to open her own hair salon one day (her biggest inspiration is the 2005 movie “Beauty Shop”), but she’s sad and discouraged because the law in Zamunda doesn’t allow women to own their own businesses. Lavelle thinks this law is wrong and he promises her that when he has the power, he’s going to change the law. Lavelle and Mirembe are good-looking, but there’s no believable romantic spark between them, so their inevitable courtship is very boring.

The only thing that looks authentic between them is a meta moment when Mirembe and Lavelle have a conversation about which of the “Barbershop” movies is the best of the series, and how sequels usually aren’t as good as the original. Mirembe says, “This is true about sequels. Why ruin it?” If only the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers took that advice for this movie.

It should come as no surprise that the movie relies on the cliché of a love triangle. Now that Akeem has a male heir, Izzi ramps up the pressure for Bopoto to become Lavelle’s wife. Akeem is open to the idea after Bopoto does a sexy dance for the royal family while showing her ample cleavage. However, Bopoto is deliberately written as a submissive airhead. More than once in the story, Lavelle says he wants to be with an intelligent and independent-minded woman, so it’s obvious which woman he’ll choose in the love triangle.

Fowler has an appealing screen presence as Lavelle, but he’s hemmed in by a character that’s written as average and unremarkable. “Coming 2 America” is also very unfocused, since it can’t decide if the story should be more about the Lavelle/Mirembe romance or the Lavelle/Meeka rivalry. Truth be told, even though Layne plays Lavelle’s half-sister, her scenes with Fowler are more dynamic and have more energy than the scenes with Fowler and Mbatha. Layne’s considerable talents are underappreciated in “Coming 2 America,” because her Meeka character isn’t in the movie as much as people might think she should be.

Continuing with the fixation on early 1990s music, there’s another out-of-place musical number where people do a big sing-along to Prince’s “Gett Off,” led by Akeem’s servant Oha (played by Paul Bates). And there’s an atrociously written scene where Queen Lisa gets drunk with Mary at a party, and they start dancing to Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance.” This scene is supposed to make it look like Lisa is getting back in touch with her New York hip-hop roots.

But when they have Lisa and Mary repeat the lines, “Uppity bitch what?,” it just goes back to making the black women in this movie look like they have a ghetto mentality. It says a lot that the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers make the woman who is literally the movie’s black queen incapable of being completely dignified. They try to make it look like Lisa has been suppressing her “true” self as a trashy party girl, when Lisa was never that way in the first “Coming to America” movie. Almost all the black women in this movie are marginalized as either existing only in the story because they’re appendages to the men, as wives/love interests/sex partners, servants or daughters.

One of the signs of a creatively bankrupt movie is when it relies too much on celebrity cameos without bringing any genuine laughs. (John Legend sings during a mid-credits scene, and it’s a useless appearance that has no bearing on the movie’s story.) Trevor Noah makes a quick and inconsequential cameo as a TV newscaster named Totatsi Bibinyana of the Zamunda News Network.

Eddie Murphy, who is the main attraction for the “Coming to America” franchise, should have been a producer and/or writer of “Coming 2 America.” His company Eddie Murphy Productions helped finance the movie, but Murphy himself was not a credited producer responsible for the movie’s content and day-to-day operations. If he had been a producer or writer, Eddie Murphy could have brought better creative clout to this movie, which makes him do silly sketches that are way beneath his talent. The comedy and tone, including the slapstick scenes, are monotonous and unimaginative.

Lavelle goes through an initiation process that includes taming a tiger and a “circumcision” ritual that are ineptly written and filmed. As part of his “royal training,” Lavelle gets criticism from Semmi, who yells at him: “You walk like an American pimp!” Lavelle shouts back, “You dress like a slave from the future!”

Doing a high-profile, highly anticipated sequel such as “Coming 2 America” isn’t just about the paychecks. It’s about making good entertainment and a fairly accurate representation of cultures to make the story look relatable. And it should be about celebrating people, instead of making them demeaning caricatures that embody what racist and sexist bigots believe.

Prime Video will premiere “Coming 2 America” on March 5, 2021.

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