Amell Cousins Lead in CODE 8

Spawned from a short film of the same name and driven by a massive IndieGoGo campaign that was reportedly over 1000% funded, Jeff Chan’s futuristic CODE 8 hits hard with the struggle of fringe dwellers with supernatural powers in a harsh society.

In Lincoln City, 4% of the population is born with special powers and even though these abilities are useful, they are treated as second class citizens. With law enforcement laying a heavy hand on them, the “powered” as they’re called, must deal with a healthy dose of discrimination since automation rendered them useless over the years. Their spinal fluid, however, is used as a valuable street drug called Psyke, and drug dealers “farm” the ostracized population as their drug cash cow. Connor (Robbie Amell) is an electric, someone who can naturally control electricity, and his mother Mary (Kari Matchett) can control the cold. She becomes ill, and he can’t keep a job due to society’s harsh view of the power-enabled, so he turns to a life of crime to make money for her medical treatment. Garrett (Stephen Amell), along with his two cronies, are the cogs in a bigger network of Psyke dealers, and Connor joins their team. When a heist goes wrong, Garrett and Connor must come together to evade the determined Agent Park (Sung Kang) and the wrath of their criminal bosses.

Connor (Robbie Amell) and Garrett (Stephen Amell)

With engaging leads Robbie and Stephen Amell (know for their extensive TV work on Arrow and The Flash), and great cinematography and production value, CODE 8 has all the makings of a great franchise or TV series. Robbie Amell shows his emotional range playing Connor, with anger and sadness switching out on a dime, and his cousin Stephen is believable as the roughened Garrett, Connor’s conduit to his power and the dark world of crime.

Where the film needs some work is the clichéd criminals who are more caricatures than threats and a storyline that loses energy midway. While Greg Bryk (Bitten, The Handmaid’s Tale, Saw) plays a rather nasty figure as drug dealer Marcus, overall, the threat posed to the main protagonists seemed a tiny bit hollow. The story does introduce some interesting aspects of discrimination, the hypocrisy of law enforcement, and loyalties within the well-built relationships between the characters. Here’s hoping that if the film gets a sequel or extends into a TV series, we see continued use of the diversity shown in the film. The special effects were subtle and used economically, creating a realistic version of a superhero, one whose merits have been lost on the “normal” masses. Keep your eye out for the Guardian robot cops too. They’re super effective and creepy in this dystopian police state.

The Guardians who patrol Lincoln City.

For some hometown futuristic fare, you can’t go wrong with the grittiness of the Toronto-shot CODE 8 and the solid Canadian cast. It’s worth watching for the effects and the performances of the talented and dynamic Amell duo.

CODE 8 opens in theatres on December 7 and VOD December 13.

Atlantics and the Beauty of Lost Love

Mati Diop’s Atlantics (Atlantique) is a tale of loss, eternal love and a vibrant vision of modern African storytelling very much needed to expose filmgoers to new representations of genre film.

In the city of Dakar, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is betrothed to the rich and worldly Omar (Babacar Sylla) and she’s not happy. She is in love with Souleiman (Traore), a young construction worker who is smitten with her. They must meet in secret and Ada hasn’t broken the news to Souleiman but plans to tell him one evening at their local hangout. When she arrives, she learns that Souleiman, along with his fellow workers, has left Darkar in a boat for Spain, looking for better opportunities since the company they work for hasn’t paid them in months. Ada, along with the other young women of the town, are distraught, and they soon hear that the boat the men were in may have gotten into some trouble.  On Ada’s wedding day, one of her friends swears she sees Souleiman and his sighting coincides with a mysterious fire set in Ada’s posh matrimonial bedroom. The police are called in as strange things continue to happen, and when the women become feverishly ill and disappear into the night, there is much more that comes into play than just pining hearts.

Mane Bineta Sane as Ada

Atlantics is a story about class, love, religion, and freedom wrapped up in a beautiful dream of a ghost story. Diop, along with co-writer Oliver Demangel, neatly encapsulates the occurrences of arranged marriages and the humiliation women must face to prove their virginity and worth, migrant workers, and the far-reaching stretch of capitalism in her 1 hour and 46-minute film.  She also creates a modern Romeo and Juliet story; and you’re not wrong if you think of the recent Demon by the late Marcin Wrona, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper or even John Carpenter’s The Fog, but this time, we get this mélange from a different perspective – an everyday Senegalese perspective, presenting a cultural newness that is desperately needed in this cinematic wasteland of remakes, reimaginings, and regurgitations populated with homogenized faces.

Claire Mathon’s cinematography is simply stunning. Gorgeous sunsets capture the roiling Atlantic Ocean; highlighting the hypnotic and seductive call of faraway lands. It surrounds Dakar like a patient giant, waiting to devour you at any moment. The performances are gorgeously subtle and the cast is gorgeously black; skin tones sparkling in varying shades of darkness. Look for Sane’s riveting transformation into an independent young woman, and the other female cast members show the fleeting joys of youth mixed with a world-weariness that is undeniable with such a transient future ahead of them. You’ll also fall for Amadou Mbow as the wonderfully earnest detective Issa Diop desperate to get to the bottom of all the perplexing activity and the ethereal synth scoring by Fatima Al Qadiri.

Diop’s film has won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes 2019, and she is the first black woman director to win such a distinction. I am equally overjoyed and broken that it has taken this long for a black female filmmaker to be accepted into this bastion of the industry fold. This quiet masterpiece is also being selected for the 2020 Oscars for best international feature film and while there have been other African films selected over the years, I want Atlantics and Diop to win; for her graceful take on a political/socio-economic situation, for Senegalese youth who deal with the pressures of the modern world, for diversity on screen and to win for black women directors around the world who show they have unique voices that need to be heard.

Atlantics is streaming now on Netflix.

Black and Blue Hits Hard With Drama and Tension

 

When an ex-vet turned cop has a life or death decision to make, she must choose between Black and Blue.

Alicia West (Naomie Harris) is a rookie cop in New Orleans, ready to make a difference after her military career in Afghanistan. She is hopeful and eager to pull her weight, so when she takes an extra shift she gets more than she bargained for. Instead of a long overnight haul with crotchety veteran cop Brown (James Moses Black), she narrowly misses botching up an arrest and annoys Brown, who makes an unusual stop at an abandoned warehouse. Left on her own, she hears gunshots and when she investigates, witnesses the murder of a local drug dealer by a gaggle of dirty cops including Brown, the shooter being narc detective Malone (Frank Grillo). Alicia’s body cam has recorded the whole incident, and she becomes a target for the crooked cops. With the impoverished neighbourhood suspicious of the police, and only a reluctant old friend Mouse (Tyrese Gibson) to help her, she must keep herself alive and get the recording to the right authorities. 

Alicia (Harris) and Mouse (Gibson) on the move.

Black and Blue was better than I expected. It followed the typical suspense crime thriller formula, but it had a really interesting horror bent that reminded me of classics like Candyman. Call me crazy, but there were so many familiar camera angles and beats punctuated by Geoff Zanelli’s heavy, overwhelming score the horror influence was hard to miss, and it worked. Considering the director Deon Taylor has made a few horror films plus the recent thriller The Intruder with Dennis Quaid and Megan Goode, this isn’t a surprise. With life in a forgotten neighborhood ravaged by Katrina and never repaired, and people living in rundown buildings without the intervention of law enforcement, everyday terror was driven home with a jackhammer at times, but the point was well taken. 


Writer Peter A. Dowling, who has a history in the horror genre as well, was somewhat heavy-handed with the script at times and I normally don’t give much leeway to a white writer creating characters of color, but he was clever with his choice for a protagonist. Race relations these days is most certainly a hot button topic and will most certainly incite passionate debate about where law enforcement stands with Black people. Too many have died because of an abuse of power, and to be a black person, a black woman for that matter, who makes the choice to be a police officer carries a heavy burden. Harris seemed to played Alicia with this in mind, emphasizing West’s rookie status by being both hopeful and leery at the same time. Gibson was impressive as the stoic Mouse who just wanted to get by and avoid the drama of drugs and police brutality. The emotion he showed was touching and poignant. I can’t forget Frank Grillo’s snarling rendition of a dirty cop which was what this movie called for; a culmination of what people fear in an authority figure abusing their position.
Although some may find Black and Blue to be a touch melodramatic, you can’t deny the social commentary with excellent performances from Gibson and Harris. It might not change the world, but like Alicia says, it’s a start, and one to a conversation that’s long overdue.

Black and Blue opens October 25.

Sweetheart: A Creature Feature with Heart

Who do we have to rely on when the chips are down and we have to fight a mysterious creature while we take refuge on a deserted island? This is the dilemma for a young woman in J. D. Dillard’s Sweetheart.

Jen (Kiersey Clemons) has washed ashore a beautiful and secluded tropical island.  The boat she was aboard was in a terrible storm and it was obliterated, scattering herself and her friends into the open water. Once she reaches the beach, she sees her gravely injured friend Brad (Benedict Samuel) who isn’t long for this world, and he asks her a cryptic question, “Did you see it?” before he dies. Puzzled and distraught, Jen is now alone, and collecting what resources she can find in a knapsack and some leftover belongings found further off the beach, she sets up camp, waiting to see if she’ll be rescued.  Aside from the elements is a different kind of threat – there is a creature that lurks in the night, and it’s hungry. Jen must find her wits to evade and survive this unbelievable entity before it gets to her and any other survivors that may drift ashore.

Clemons as the plucky Jen

The night I watched this, I’d had a particularly hard day, dealing with micro-aggressions, passive aggressive criticisms and a general malaise that has been hard to shake lately. What I saw in Sweetheart was a young black woman, determined to survive despite the adversity placed before her.  I saw a young woman rely on herself and her knowledge, believe in herself when others wouldn’t and prove she could do the impossible; that maybe, just maybe, this black girl has had enough shit tossed in her corner and no monster is going to mess with her chi or her will to survive.  That’s a lot to glean from an hour and twenty-two-minute movie, but it was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Dillard, along with his co-writers Alex Hyner and Alex Theurer, got it right. The vibe, the pacing and the eerie quiet in the blazing sun set the scene for a creature feature with loads of subtext. These three men were able to write a female character with a ton of appeal and an intriguing back story without making her a caricature.  Jen is a salve for those of us who have to endure working twice as hard as a woman of color; who have to prove we are capable.

Clemons’ performance was really, really good. Her portrayal was one of a woman who doesn’t wait to react, she just acts, fighting for her life against this intelligent creature. Looks like Dillard also knew where to put his budget because the creature was brilliantly realized. I don’t want to give too much away in that respect, but be prepared for maximum monster satisfaction. Check out the cool synth score as well, giving the film a youthful vibe amidst the terror.

This isn’t a review so much as a rallying cry for black women who feel powerless. Watch this film. Tell your friends and spread the word about this great indie horror with a black female character done right. Since it’s not being released theatrically, which is a crying shame, I rented it on Google Play, and you can also find it on iTunes and other VOD platforms.

 

Refreshingly Terrifying Marianne

French horror has always pushed the envelope with extreme terror, and Netflix has thrown its hat in the ring with its own contribution to the genre. This time though, we get some old-fashioned supernatural scares and imagery that will stay with you into the wee hours of the night with the series Marianne.

Emma Larsimon (Victoria Du Bois) is a famous horror author who rides her fame with rock n’ roll flare: she drinks too much, is flippant with her agent and publishers and has decided to kill off her main characters, a vengeful witch called Marianne and her vanquisher Lizzie Lark, to try something more adult. Emma also hides a secret. She was plagued by nightmares of Marianne when she was a teen, and after making her the subject of her novels, she stopped having the dreams and became rich.

When a high school friend Caroline (Aurore Broutin) comes to Emma’s very last book signing distraught, Emma is shaken with the news she brings her. Caroline’s mother (Mireille Herbstmeyer) is obsessed with the characters and books Emma has written, and Emma must go back to their hometown Elden to see her before she goes off the deep end.  Emma dismisses her old school chum as nutty, but when Caroline ends her life with a cryptic message to relay to her mother and the nightmares come back, Emma has no choice but to go back to her home town and not only see Caroline’s mother, but her own slightly estranged parents and face her high school friends. Once she’s back in town, Caroline’s mother is terrifyingly strange and insists Emma keep Marianne alive; and Emma must figure out what is real and what is a dream before her loved ones suffer irreversible consequences.

Du Bois as the troubled Emma.

It’s been a long time since I’ve found a series that kept me guessing and genuinely creeped out (and let it be know that all the spitting in the show skeeved this critic out). With nods to Stephen King, director Samuel Bodin creates a refreshing take on the writer going back home to deal with her demons. It’s an homage to the master with some gruesome visuals and absolutely brilliant scares built to creep the living daylights out of viewers, especially the dream sequences.  They are some of the best I’ve seen in a long time, with classic tools like jump scares, unsettling camera angles and atmospheric scoring. It may sound run of the mill; however, they are used in new and unpredictable ways.

The solid horror writing paired with fantastic performances will appeal to those of us who devour horror novels.  Bodin along with his co-writer Quoc Dang Tran must do double duty since they have to create pages from Emma’s books as well as the script of the actual series. The mythology of Marianne is well though out and executed in a way that helps you absorb the information easily, and you’ll also find a clever, dark humor throughout the episodes, keeping things light amidst all the horror. The editing team of Dimitri Amar, Olivier Galliano and Richard Riffaud creates a sharp style that leaves a wonderful sense of dread and the viewer clamoring for more.

Herbstmeyer as Caroline’s mother Madame Daugeron leads the cast as the character of my nightmares.  Her unassuming, plain look hides the insanity and evil seething just beneath her frail looking, lined skin. Du Bois is a force as the defiant, emotionally stunted Emma, and the chemistry with the rest of the cast is apparent and the strength of this ensemble. There were a couple of characters I wanted to see more of, but to stay spoiler-free, I’ll mourn them in silence.

My hope for Marianne is that there is a healthy second season and more thrills in store for Emma Larsimon and her plagued life. See it streaming now on Netflix.