Culver City Observer -

MOVIE REVIEW DOUBLE FEATURE: MEET THE BLACKS • THE DARK HORSE

 

March 31, 2016



Anyone who seen writer/director Deon Taylor’s freshman film, “Supremacy”, has been awed by the power and strength of the heavy dramatic themes rising from the a racially motivated true story. Many, including myself, have anxiously awaited his follow-up film curious to see what Taylor would deliver next. That wait is now over. And I am here to tell you, MEET THE BLACKS is nothing at all like “Supremacy”. Going from the darkest depths of the souls of men, Taylor reaches the opposite extreme with laugh your ass off, belly shaking chuckling, eyes watering hilarity with MEET THE BLACKS. It is funny, funny, funny funny!

An all-star comedy team led by Mike Epps, Charlie Murphy, Gary Owen, George Lopez, Lil Duval and laugh-out-loud cameos by Snoop Dogg and Mike Tyson, MEET THE BLACKS is a genre bending spoof of “The Purge” and every horror movie you can think of, all under a fun-filled comedic umbrella. Taylor takes spoofing to new heights thanks to his comedically adept cast. But what is more enamoring is that with the dialogue and comedic notes, this is no holds barred. MEET THE BLACKS is NOT for the faint of heart OR the "politically correct".

Carl Black wants a better life for his family than that in the hood of Chicago. So, when he comes into a nice chunk of change, he up and moves his new wife Lorena, teenaged daughter Allie Black, sone Carl Jr. - who everyone calls “Carls Jr”, and his cousin Cronut, to Beverly Hills. Finding them a nice, gated, secure community nestled among the blue skies, sunshine and palm trees, Carl knows life is just gonna keep getting better. But Carl picked a bad time to move as the Blacks arrive on the day of the annual purge, when crime is legal for twelve hours. And did I mentioned, the Blacks are the only black family in the neighborhood?

Performances are rock solid. As Carl, Mike Epps is at the top of his game, but the script keenly brings him back to a sweet sense of family by films end. A running theme that plays to the character of Carl is dialogue about "doing for my family" which is consistently repeated from beginning to end, and goes to the heart of the story itself.

Call me crazy, but I thoroughly enjoyed Gary Owen as an unnamed stranger who shows up during the purge with a maniacal chainsaw. Similarly, as Key Flo, a former acquaintance of Carl’s and who has something to do with Carl’s newfound fortune, Charlie Murphy will have you in stitches - and not just with his performance. Wait until you see his clothes!

A new surprise is Zulay Henao as beautiful younger wife Lorena. With a striking Sofia Vergara quality to her in both looks and comedic performance, Henao plays to it well, delivering a quite heartfelt performance; especially when engaging with Alex Henderson who plays the vampire obsessed Carl Jr. As comes as no surprise, Henderson, who made his acting debut in Taylor’s “Supremacy” is still as adorable and charming as ever and takes every opportunity to show off his 100-watt smile, er fangs. His chemistry with Henao is believable and serves as a nice balance to the high octane antics unfolding throughout the film. Bresha Webb thoroughly embodies a street stereotype of girl gone bad as Allie, while finding that balance of also being “Daddy’s Girl” when the chips are down. . .or when she wants something.

There are no words for what Mike Tyson and Lil Duval bring to the table. Just trust me when I saw comedy is an understatement for what we see from these two. George Lopez rounds things out with a fun take as the Kevlar-wearing, armed and dangerous President of the United States.

Written by Taylor and Nicole DeMasi, story structure and comedic set up is solid. They left no stone unturned with purge topics and scenarios. And yes...some very spot on messaging throughout. Watching the family bond through crisis and fear is well executed and a thematic strength. Core family characters are fleshed out while stereotypes of neighbors and cameos are spot on.

The visual grammar is standout - especially once the purge descends. Taylor and cinematographer John Connor do a terrific job with the camera, and in tandem with that editing courtesy of Suzanne Hines, Patrick McMahon and Richard B. Molina, particularly with camera dutching that really mirrors Mike Epps' frenetic reactions. Thanks to the visuals and pacing, the audience is as off kilter as much as the Blacks are. Love the lighting of various rooms and hallways of the Black house during the purge, as well as Taylor’s use of color, always a strong suit in his cinematic design. Particularly effective is a smoke effect during the height of the purge which just escalates the parodied sense of fun and horror movie homage in the proceedings.

There are, however, a couple of scenes once the purge begins that drone on a bit. The joke comes and hits big, but then the camera expectantly lingers a bit, but nothing happens. Cutting a few seconds to keep the jokes and audience laughter going would make a big difference. Similarly, there is a kitchen scene (the plot point of which I will not divulge) where it’s obvious Taylor is trying to build dramatic tension with a slow and languid approach, but something just isn’t working to create the dynamic.

"Masks off" to Taylor for the ingenuity of parody with masks and nod to horror and heist films over the decades.

Purge yourself of all prejudice and political correctness. Embrace the funny. Embrace the family. And RUN, DON'T WALK, TO MEET THE BLACKS!!

THE DARK HORSE

Every once in awhile there are moments in film where we are privy to real movie magic. Not the magic of technology, but the magic where the stars align and someone is so perfectly cast in a role that it feels like divine intervention was at play, especially once you see the performance. And then when you add a writer/director so attuned to the emotional resonance of the story that it feels as if the camera has wings, capturing every emotional heartbeat and nuance, so powerful that it’s as if the emotion is flying off the screen and into the beating hearts of the audience, that’s real magic. That actor is Cliff Curtis as Genesis Potini. That writer/director is James Napier Robertson. That film is THE DARK HORSE.

Genesis “Gen” Potini is the most unlikely of heroes, yet he has touched more lives with positivity and inspiration than most of us will ever fathom. Known as “The Dark Horse”, in his youth, Gen was a New Zealand speed-chess champion. He was unbeatable. But then bipolar mental illness took hold of him and he was institutionalized. In and out of hospitals, he was unable to control his bipolar swings. Over his lifetime, there would be years where he lived on the streets or underneath a bridge. Other times, he would go for long stretches with bouts of depression, unable to get out of bed. But THE DARK HORSE isn’t about the dark times, it’s about the light of Genesis Potini, a light that still shines bright today.

We first meet Gen as he walks about the main street in the little community where he lives. Although in New Zealand, it could be Main Street in Anytown, U.S.A. Of Maori descent, Gen is a big man, an imposing man. Missing teeth and with a shaved head, he is an oddity most people shy away from, yet on second glance, there is frailty to this gentle giant. Sometimes seeming a little bit slow, Gen is anything but. A spiritual man, he philosophizes about life and when focused, can orate with the best of them. He has keen head for strategy and mathematics and, of course, chess. Locals know him and know of his mental illness. They see him as harmless. Outsiders, not so much. Wearing his brightly colored Crocs, baggy clothes and wrapped in a multi-colored patchwork quilt, you can’t help but be drawn to him. Who is this man? As a cloudburst opens from the heavens, rather than run from the rain, Gen embraces it, opening his arms welcoming the blessings from above. But something catches his eye across the street. Walking into the local mercantile, Gen sees a chess set and proceeds to play against himself in a speed-chess match. The shopkeeper is mesmerized, as are we sitting in a darkened theatre. But then his mania sets in and he is whisked away back to the hospital.

Ultimately released from another hospital and placed in the care of his brother, Ariki, Gen is at a loss on how to exist in Ariki’s world. Long estranged, Ariki is now part of a violent gang life. Gen wants no part of that, but the condition of his release is that he stay with Ariki and Ariki is to make sure Gen takes his meds and stays “in control.”

Uncomfortable with his situation with Ariki, Gen gets an idea and in the middle of the night and heads off to see his long time friend and former chess partner, Noble. Noble runs a local youth group chess club - the Eastern Knights - for the disadvantaged kids in the community. A low income community and with gang violence and influence abounding, it’s a safe haven for many. Gen wants to help Noble. But not just “help”, he wants to coach the kids in chess with an eye towards the National Chess Championships. Noble is more than dubious that allowing Gen, himself troubled and subject to manic mood swings at any moment, to work with these kids. Ultimately, Gen’s sincerity and persistence win Noble over. Kicked out of Ariki’s house, any money that Noble has, he spends on new chess sets for the kids instead of putting a roof over his own head.

His dedication is infectious as is his teaching style with the kids, all whom grow to adore him. Using the chess pieces as characters in Maori lore he not only gives the kids a sense of their history, but family, as he explains the folklore in terms of the relationships and movements of chessmen. As much as Gen is the force that inspires hope in these kids, they are Gen’s driving force to stay on his meds and sleep schedule. One real source of pride for Gen in this venture is his nephew Mana who has an aptitude for chess and wants to escape the gang life his father is forcing him into. But that bond presents its own set of problems as Ariki squares off against Gen over Mana’s future and threatens the newfound stability and purpose in Gen’s life as the eastern Knights fight their way to Auckland and the championships.

Cliff Curtis. There are no words adequate to describe his performance as Genesis Potini. There is an purity and authenticity to his performance that transcends that of an actor assuming a role. It is impossible to tell where Curtis ends and Genesis begins. A tour de force performance for the ages. During my exclusive interview with Cliff Curtis, it was surprising to learn he originally didn’t think he was right for the role. “I was really intimidated by the role. I didn’t really understand how you could convey mental illness or the physicality of the guy who was so different from me. . .There were so many things to the equation.” Credit writer/director Robertson who suggested Curtis “go method”, something Curtis had never done. “I’m a working actor. I kind of like turn up, show me the lines and I hit the marks and I’ll be professional, but living in the character for months at a time? I don’t even know how that was possible.” Electing to approach Genesis not from his physical appearance, but emotionally and intellectually, “I wanted to really understand who the man was and not be concerned about the superficial aspects; the fact he had no teeth, that he was massively huge, or his hairstyle or what he wore. I just wanted to understand how it was that he affected the people the way that he did, and how he helped people, and he overcame his obstacles in life. I thought the most important thing for the story was to somehow inspire and uplift people, and to show the love and compassion that he was able to convey through the way he lived his life.” Notable is that Curtis achieves that and more as there is not a moment on screen where one does not feel hope emanating from the character. Through manic high and lows, Curtis found the soul of Genesis and shares that with us. Resonant are Genesis’ tacit life lessons which he equates to the game of chess.

Writer/director James Napier Robertson first learned of Genesis Potini when he saw Jim Marbrook’s award-winning 2003 documentary on the man. Knowing he had to tell Genesis’ story in a narrative, he reached out to Genesis and over the course of hundreds of hours of conversations and thousands of chess games, an unbreakable bond and trust was formed. It’s that personal connection that Robertson infuses into every fiber of the script and in the verite-styling lensing that lets us see the world through Genesis’ eyes and heart. Thanks to the 360 degree hand held camera work of cinematographer Denson Baker, we are constantly “in the moment”, living and feeling Genesis and his emotions. An unpredictability of Genesis’ behavior due to his illness, adds a palpable edginess.

As Cliff Curtis notes, “[Genesis] gave himself a purpose to give hope, to bring hope into [the kids] lives and to bring hope into his own life. I think it’s a very beautiful moving story and it’s a privilege to focus on this very tiny story.” A tiny story that comes from the very big heart of THE DARK HORSE.

 

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