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.

The Color Out of Space and Richard Stanley’s Return

It’s been some time since we’ve seen something directed by the infamous Richard Stanley, once slotted to helm the tragic Island of Dr. Moreau, now the subject of a popular and mythical documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau by David Gregory. While he’s been writing screenplays, Color Out of Space is the first film Stanley has directed since 2013, and guess what? It’s fabulously strange, creepy and, yes, colorful for so many reasons.

Nathan (Nicholas Cage) is a father and husband who, needing to get away from the big city, decides to take over his deceased father’s farm and make a go of raising alpacas, the animal of the future. His wife (Joely Richardson) is recovering from breast cancer and trying her best to deal with high powered clients on a farm via Skype and sketchy internet service while trying to raise her teenage children:  Wiccan-obsessed daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), nerdy Benny (Brendan Meyer), and her youngest, Jack (Julian Hilliard). There also might be a problem with their water supply, so a handsome hydrologist Ward Phillips (Elliot Knight) checks out the surrounding area and also takes a liking to Lavinia.  When a meteor crashes onto their front yard, a strange series of events occur, and it’s up to Nathan and Ward to figure out what might be transpiring as this alien object slowly changes the landscape and all their mental states.

Color Out of Space was an efficient treat and my only TIFF viewing this year. With pacing that unexpectedly ramps up, stunning visuals and a whole lotta Cage, Stanley shines with his director’s hat firmly in place. Along with my rage-daddy Cage, the entire cast was excellent from little Hilliard to the charmingly nuts Tommy Chong as the resident mystical weed man Ezra. Adapting a story written by H. P. Lovecraft so that it’s relevant in these times is not an easy feat when this particular story has been done a few times over the decades, but Stanley, along with his long-time collaborator and writer Scarlett Amaris, manages to do it while broaching current environmental issues. I also loved that the film’s narrator, played by Ward’s character, is black, perhaps a thumbing of the nose to Lovecraft’s notoriously racist views.

Brendan Meyer, Madeleine Arthur, Julian Hilliard, Nicolas Cage, Richard Stanley, Joely Richardson, and Elliot Knight at an event for Color Out of Space (2019)

The digital effects were stunning and I’m glad I was able to see it on an IMAX screen even though the film wasn’t shot in that format. It really emphasized the colors and landscape well, immersing the viewer into this special world of madness. For the record I know there are comparisons to Alex Garland’s Annihilation, but to be honest, I prefer Color Out of Space because although it’s also a visual spectacle and an environmental morality tale of sorts, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  And those of you who want some practical effects will not be disappointed. Stanley serves up some mutant creepy crawlies that will surely make you squeal with delight.

I highly recommend seeing Color Out of Space, not only to celebrates Stanley’s return to the director’s chair, but also because horror never looked so good.

Ready or Not is Full of Horror Comedy Riches

Often,”marrying up” carries a set of consequences that you must adhere to for acceptance into the fold.  Proper etiquette, dressing to impress and a background that isn’t too sullied by scandal lest you be judged harshly is all very important in this superficial world. But what if marrying up means marrying into something more sinister than you could ever imagine? In Ready or Not, V/H/S alumni Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett give us a run for our money as a new bride gets acquainted with her sadistic in-laws. 

Grace (Samara Weaving) is about to marry Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien), one of the heirs to the Le Domas game dynasty. Surrounded by old money in a massive mansion, Grace is filled with emotions and nerves as she comes from a meager, foster home background and is about to join the world of the very rich. The family members are eccentric, with Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni), who looks like Nosferatu’s stylish ex-wife, Daniel (Adam Brody), Alex’s surly and sauced brother, and Becky (Andie MacDowell), their beautiful Southern mother. Their father Tony (Henry Czerny), is the picture of a patriarchal figurehead with loads of family history and a commanding presence. It’s tradition for the family to play a game at midnight when someone gets married; using a special box passed down from ancestors to choose a game at random for the newest member. Instead of checkers, Grace gets the dreaded Hide and Seek, which means she must hide and the family seeks, however things get deadly when she realizes she must be caught and dealt with in a very unpleasant way, because the rich never want to lose. 

The Le Domas clan ready to play. Source: IMDb

I was not ready for Ready or Not, but I was definitely pleasantly surprised. The film was all action, all suspense, gorier than you’d think, and a lot of fun. Writers Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy managed to keep the banter funny, clever and extremely dark without going for cheap gags, and I was thrilled to see a mostly Canadian cast.  Along with Czerny and Cube’s Guadagni, we were also treated to  Melanie Scrofano of Wynonna Earp as Alex’s high-strung and strung out sister Emile, Orphan Black’s Kristian Bruun as her husband Fitch, and John Ralston as Stevens, the evil butler. They were all in fine form as the psychotic family members bent on catching their prey regardless of the cost. Weaving was stellar as the determined new bride fighting for her life, and I also have to give kudos to Andie MacDowell, who was deceivingly sweet and just gets more stunning with age.

Grace (Weaving) means business on her wedding night. Source: IMDb

With many a clever spin on a classic cat and mouse chase, spot on performances and an evil family you’ll actually kind of love, Ready or Not is destined to be a horror fan’s go-to for fun. 

Reclamation and Resistance in The Last Black Man in San Francisco

There are a lot of pretty movies and series about San Francisco, like the recent hit Always Be My Maybe, and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City; but there is also a growing concern about the sterilization of neighborhoods once thought to be multicultural, unique and a site of generational preservation. Childhood friends Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails are far too familiar with this gentrification, and they bring the experience to the big screen with The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) is a young black man who sees his San Francisco neighborhood changing and disappearing before his eyes. He lives with his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) and Montgomery’s grandfather Grandpa Allen (Danny Glover). He regularly visits his childhood home, built by his grandfather in 1946, filled with memories of living there as a child. He’s so enamoured of it he goes so far as to provide unsolicited maintenance of the property, like paint the window trim of the majestic Victorian home, to the chagrin of the current white, middle class owners.

When the home owners are locked out of the house due to a family dispute, Jimmie takes the opportunity to purchase the home. Because of the fast rise of gentrification in the San Francisco area, he can’t afford it, but that doesn’t stop him. Instead, he claims squatter’s rights, and with the help of Montgomery, they move his family heirlooms in and create a household of two. Their happiness is short-lived however when the reality of the situation, a family secret, plus the constant heckling of their curbside brotherhood of frenemies and a subsequent tragedy brings everything a fever pitch.

I normally don’t review non-horror films as a rule even though I watch a breadth of genres besides horror, but this film moved me so much, I had to write about it, especially because it inadvertently broaches the topic of Afrofuturism, which is in short, a movement to include blacks, their contributions and innovations in the future.

Fails broke my heart as a displaced man looking for his roots as the world around him changed. For blacks and most people of color who aren’t normally included in the future of cities and their economics, often forced to adapt without any help, the characters of Jimmie and Montgomery are extremely important. They not only insert themselves into a house taken over by white gentrification, but create their own narrative of reclamation which is the essence of what Afrofuturism is all about. They are also unique personalities, and their pseudo-nerdiness is a contrast to their ‘hood homeboys who hide behind their masculinity; an opt out of stereotype. Jimmie refuses to let the black psyche of the house and the neighborhood disintegrate, and fights for his right to be present. This refusal of being erased in itself is an archetype of the black experience.

Montgomery (Majors) and Jimmie (Fails) walk the streets of their neighborhood. Copyright Sundance Institute.

Director Talbot and star/writer Fails, who are born and bred San Franciscans, created this project they started as teenagers. This labour of love took 5 years to make and is also a collaboration of the future: it’s possible to have a white director and a black cast using their own voices instead of a white writer assuming the actions of character of color. There has to be a point where collaborations like this happen organically and speaks to truths, much like Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film Born in Flames; a feminist futuristic collaboration of both queer and POC voices.

Talbot creates a beautiful tableau of the city, with the vibrancy of a whimsical storybook and the grit of true life. Both Talbot and Fails incorporate a quirk reminiscent of Michel Gondry or Wes Anderson, but they make it their own, putting a unique spin on this type of storytelling. The entire cast was brilliant, including real residents from their Fillmore District neighborhood and punk legend Jello Biafra in a cameo, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Majors’ performance as Montgomery. This the first time I’ve seen him in a film, and he brings such intensity to the role that I know he’ll be someone I look out for.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an award winner at Sundance, is required viewing for its emotional portrayal gentrification and staying true to oneself, and on a deeper level, for those who has felt invisible, invalidated and a misfit.