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.

Review: Empathy, Inc.

Virtual Reality has gone through many iterations, from clunky goggles to full body suits in order to experience another world without leaving your home.  In Empathy, Inc., we find out just how far one man will go to make a fast buck in this brave new world of technology.

When his tech company tanks due to false claims and mismanaged money, Joel (Zack Robidas) must move in with his in-laws. His wife Jessica (Kathy Searle), thinks it will be good for them to get away from the scandal, and his father-in-law thinks his daughter will finally do what he wants: settle down across the street and have a family.  Joel, determined to make his money back, decides to take up an old school friend Nicolaus (Eric Berryman) on his offer to invest in an extreme virtual reality,”XVR”, experience start-up, bound to make loads of cash.  Armed with his eager father-in-law’s sizable retirement nest egg, Joel funds the research after he tries out the mind-blowing experience first hand. Only problem is the experience, which lets you live in someone else’s body, isn’t just a fantasy, and real-life crime and drama comes faster than Joel could have ever imagined. With his reputation, money and life on the line, he must try to save his name and his family from the shady side of the tech industry.

Empathy, Inc. is a bleak sci-fi film noir that brings dangerous technology closer to our current time, and with all the innovation swirling around us, it’s not hard to see how it can go bad at the drop of a hat.  The film is shot in black and white lending to an arthouse feel, especially with the effective use of unusual and harsh angles by cinematographer Darin Quan. It actually reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s earlier film, Following which had the same tense and bare-bones feel. The performances were slightly uneven, but the core cast of Robidas, Searle, Klaitz as the sleazy tech genius Lester and Berryman as the sketchy Nicolaus were definite standouts. They all brought the story of greed and regret to life, and the clever script written by the film’s director Yedidya Gorsetman and Mark Leidner shows their talent for storytelling.

Empathy, Inc. builds a gradual wave of twists that will keep you riveted to the story, so it’s worth hanging in with this visually stark journey to get to the bittersweet end.

Empathy Inc. will be released in select theatres September 13 and VOD September 24.

Review: Seeds

Urges and family ties create an unnerving experience in Owen Long’s Seeds.

Marcus (Trevor Long) is a man with an affliction, and when an untimely accident occurs with his lover, he retreats to his family home by the sea to lay low while his drug dealer takes care of things. His brother Michael (Chris McGarry) must deal with his crumbling marriage, so Marcus agrees to look after his niece and nephew Lily and Spencer (Andrea Chen and Garr Long) while Michael tends to his estranged wife.

Lily is a teenager beyond her years, and becomes yet another problem for Marcus who forces himself to resist her immature advances because his affliction is getting worse, and what once looked like substance abuse slowly shows itself to be much more; haunting him as his mental health deteriorates and his life takes the form of a nightmarish fever dream.

Seeds will leave you perplexed until the last frame.  It’s a beautifully shot film, with gorgeous use of light and focus by Korean cinematographer Eun-ah Lee, but the audience isn’t going to get a nice linear story.  There are flashbacks to Lily as a little girl, nightmares that seem real, and a general sense of unease that never goes away, mostly due to the relationship between Lily and her uncle Marcus. Depending on the perspective, she is either relentless in her pursuit of Marcus or it’s him that has to control his urge not to pounce on the young woman. I’m not sure if this pairing of an older white man and a teenaged Asian girl put me off because of the taboos with incest or if her race was the issue, especially since both Marcus and his brother seemed to have a pattern with Asian women in the film.  Marcus clearly had mental issues he was working through that fueled his delusions but I’m on the fence with that type of objectification and stereotype here. The director’s wife Younny Long however, is Asian as well as the film’s executive producer, so there’s hope that her’s and actor Chen’s voice behind the scenes kept things in check and her race is merely incidental.

Amidst the understated performances, Long does a great job as Marcus and gives us a unique version of a man descending quietly into his own private hell before your eyes. Having your brother as the director could go either way, but it’s clear they make a good team.  Again, you have to hang in until the end with this slow burner served with a pinch of body horror. Long and screenwriter Steven Weisman are clearly influenced by Cronenberg and Lynch; and Long has described his film as a cross between The Shining and Lolita, but you may also get inklings of Spider, Twin Peaks, and Canadian horror The Crescent which has a similar eerie feel.

This strange, disjointed film isn’t a typical horror film, and I’m certain it’s not for everyone, but that’s ok.  Seeds won’t give you a neat package of protagonist/antagonist or a reliable guide in this journey, but it will definitely leave you with some disturbing images and an unsettling urge to check your closets before you go to bed, especially if you live by the water.

Catch Seeds in U.S. theatres September 13.