Saturday, May 7, 2016

Movie Reviews: They're Watching, Black Dynamite

They're Watching
directed by Micah Wright and Jay Lender

This is another found footage film. Obviously there is an immediate credibility issue with found footage films because (a) who is going to be taking pictures and video while they're running for their life and (b) who has time or interest to capture everything they're doing on a day even when they're not trying to stay alive. 

They're Watching rather adroitly steps around those issues by saving most of the mayhem for the ending and by offering a reasonable explanation for why all events before then are captured on video. You see the protagonists of this tale are a production team for a real estate show, imagine House Hunters International, who have traveled to the far reaches of Moldova to chronicle the adventures of an American woman, Becky (Brigid Brannagh), a pottery artist who has fallen in love both with a Moldovan soccer star, Goran (Cristian Balint) and a run down home in the forest that she intends to renovate. 

So obviously the production team and the Home Hunters Global star will always be recording. The team doesn't necessarily like each other all that much. The host and star of the show Kate Banks (Carrie Genzel) is a nerve grating phony when she's on camera and an annoying bully when she's not.

Her cameramen and production/sound assistants Greg (David Alpay) and Alex (Kris Lemche) have learned to tune out the worst of Kate's rants, usually by ingesting copious amounts of alcohol and chocolate but also by seeking companionship with local women. Well that last part is mostly Alex, who is unafraid of being rejected or making a fool of himself. Greg's a bit more sensitive. He's haunted by his time in Afghanistan. The group is led around Moldova by the local louche real estate agent Vladimir (Dimitri Diatchenko) who translates for them. The team returns to Moldova six months later to document for the show what Becky and Goran have done with their home. 
Well they want to see what Becky has done with the home. She's the member of that duo who is most interested in home improvement.  And Becky is the one who was most excited by the home. This time on the return to Moldova the team also includes the production assistant Sarah (Mia Faith) an eager new film school graduate who is also the niece of a network big shot.

Sarah was hired over Kate's strenuous objections. Kate doesn't like Sarah one bit. It's mostly unstated but Kate resents what she sees as nepotism. Kate also views the younger and more attractive Sarah as simultaneously too weak to succeed and a possible threat to her position. Have you ever made a mistake at work and had a supervisor or someone senior to you immediately brutally correct you in such a way that you know they have long been anticipating and salivating over the chance to take you down? That's how Kate responds to Sarah's mistakes. 

And as a newbie Sarah makes her share of errors. During their down time the team tries to enjoy the local sights but there's not much to see or do other than drink and make goo-goo eyes at each other or some sullen locals. A few "ugly American" incidents occur. There's some local history which is backstory but still very significant to the city residents. You ignore it or make fun of it at your peril. You can guess what the American protagonists do. For most of the movie the Americans' worst problems are hard stares and uncomfortable silences. And the danger isn't necessarily coming from where you think. The ending is insane but in a good way. 

If you like thriller or horror movies this one is just entertaining enough to recommend. It's competent but not much more. It plays on the familiar fear of the unknown which most of us have dealt with at some point. This could be something you run into by traveling to a foreign country or by doing something as prosaic as making a wrong turn and winding up in a dangerous neighborhood at night. 

Obviously if you don't like these sorts of films then this movie isn't for you. There are a fair number of comedy moments.  There are only a few "gotcha" moments. Mostly there is just unease which is slowly turned up to dread. The camera work does make you believe that you are there.

Black Dynamite
directed by Scott Sanders
The older movie Black Dynamite is a loving homage to and parody of a number of movies which were made from say 1967 to about 1975 and have become linked together under the category of "blaxploitation". These movies didn't necessarily have super high budgets. 

They weren't necessarily financed by, directed by or produced by Black people. The quality of writing and acting could vary dramatically. Some of the directing and camera work was sublime; other directing on display could make you think that you were watching work done by someone who had flunked film school multiple times. Like any other type of film genre, obviously quality varied. What these movies did tend to have in common was black protagonists, who to paraphrase football player and genre star Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, "survived until the end of the movie, won most or all of their fights, and got the girl". This was almost revolutionary for audiences who were still used to seeing black actors and actresses onscreen in subordinate or stereotypical roles or not at all. Of course some of these movies were pure pandering and cheap catharsis in which noble black heroes stood up to evil white racists and as often as not beat the everloving daylights out of them, after being suitably provoked of course. 

Other movies in this genre had some very negative messages packed within. These films could be formulaic, stereotypical and trite just like any other movies could. But as we've discussed before people like seeing themselves on screen. If you are dying of thirst you're not going to tell someone offering you some spring water that no thanks you only drink distilled. Black Dynamite pulls off the trick of being simultaneously serious and as silly as can be. The lead actor playing the titular hero, Michael Jai White, also wrote the film. White is also an accomplished martial artist. So the action and there's a lot of it in this movie is definitely in White's wheelhouse. 

The entire film is a tongue in cheek reference to too many blaxploitation films to mention but the plot will be immediately familiar to anyone who's ever sat through an action film. Black Dynamite is a semi-retired bada$$ veteran secret agent community leader player who tells everyone that he's out of the game. Of course you know that when someone says he's done and only wants to look out for himself that sooner rather than later he's coming back. Black Dynamite's wake up moment comes when his brother Jimmy (Baron Vaughn) is murdered. 

Black Dynamite comes back with a vengeance to find out who was responsible and deliver some righteous justice. He finds out that his brother's murder may be connected to a drug ring that is pushing dope into black orphanages. And that's just the outer ring of the conspiracy. 

But no matter how high the corruption goes or what evil plans are exposed, Black Dynamite will not let anyone prevent him from completing his roaring rampage of revenge. Black Dynamite is assisted by Gloria (Salli Richardson).  Nicole Ari Parker is the undercover Panther Mahogany Black. Other actors featured include Nicole Sullivan, Tommy Davidson (both MadTV veterans), Arsenio Hall, Obba Babbatunde, Mykelti Williamson, Mike Starr, Miguel Nunez, and Richard Edson. This film is full of gags like visible boom mikes, continuity errors (actors who were clearly killed in a previous scene show up just fine in later scenes), people who repeat their lines, bad dubbing, misspelled credits, and of course revolvers that never need to be reloaded. And that's just the obvious stuff.

Although the humor is not as relentless and as over the top as say Airplane, it's still pretty out there. This movie was shot on old Kodak film. It lifts footage from seventies movies and television shows. I think you will enjoy this movie immensely if you are familiar with the films it spoofs but even if you've never seen the source material I think you may find this humorous. White holds everything together by taking everything seriously, even in the most ridiculous situations. But you shouldn't take anything seriously in this movie.
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