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Tuesday , October 27 2020

‘Black Magic’, a supernatural drama

‘The Art of Racing will leave you in tears’

Originally conceived as a TV series, Onur Tukel’s latest diversion works well as a shaggy ensemble-comedy feature.

Shaggy Manhattan auteur Onur Tukel’s latest film isn’t entirely new: Originally conceived as an ongoing TV series, “Black Magic for White Boys” premiered at Tribeca a couple of years ago as several preliminary episodes. But when prospects didn’t pan out in that format, he shot additional footage to create the current feature. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the result still has a loose, episodic feel, with a somewhat casual attitude toward the concept of “narrative arc” – qualities not at all at odds with Tukel’s prior output.

This ensemble comedy with a silly supernatural angle, centered on a decrepit Off Off Broadway theater, won’t be its maker’s belated breakthrough. But for those who grok his amiably misanthropic, offhand brand of humor, it will comprise another satisfyingly idiosyncratic chapter in a singular career that carries forward a trail previously blazed by the likes of Woody Allen, Henry Jaglom and Amerindie types from to Alexandre Rockwell to Joe Swanberg.

Cranky old Larry (Ronald Guttman) is the Parisian impresario of a tiny New York legit theater whose seats are rarely filled these days by his tired magic act, performed with assistants Dean (Colin Buckingham) and Lucy (Eva Dorrepaal). Indeed, business is so bad he’s in danger of losing the venue, being resistant to sharing it with any other groups that might supplement the rent.

Despite the anxious warnings of his wife that he not try to salvage their fortunes by dabbling in actual magic – something that evidently has led to woe before – he duly makes use of a spell book in his possession. Now able to make audience members disappear and reappear at will, he’s a huge hit at the box office. But the dark arts prove corrupting, natch, and the temptation to make anyone troublesome (such as that nagging wife) disappear permanently proves hard to resist.

Meanwhile, others wonder if Larry’s supernatural powers can help them, too. Oscar (Tukel), a middle-aged trust fund layabout, finds his happy joblessness threatened by the financial demands of blind date Chase (Charlie LaRose), who swore she couldn’t have children, yet brought a pregnancy test kit on their one-night stand. As she refuses abortion, he seeks some other way to make the kid (and/or expectant mother) disappear. Likewise, real estate hustler Jamie (Lou Jay Taylor) wants to make longtime homeowners and tenants vanish so he can ride the gentrification wave to personal riches.

Sorcery isn’t the only miracle fix here: Local drug dealer Fred (Franck Raharinosy) travels with a case of improbable pharmaceuticals that can apparently resolve any complaint for the right price. Thus Lucy’s horribly crass boyfriend Ralphie (a very funny Brendan Miller) realizes he needs a new personality – and actually gets one. Meanwhile Dean, who also fancies Lucy and feels limited by dwarfism, wants a pill that will make him attractively tall.

Suspense

Such magical changes are presented in ways that are as deliberately implausible and technically simple as they were on TV’s “Bewitched”. There’s no attempt at fantastical atmospherics here, let alone suspense or menace; the very notion of supernatural goings-on is part of the overall joke.

More serious, if still humorously presented, is the film’s observation of how greed is turning the funky, multicultural Big Apple into a sterile, monochrome, upscale investment scheme. An ersatz Greek chorus has African-American residents at a bus stop complaining about how their city is vanishing. By the end of this shambling comedy, they’ve largely vanished as well.

Organized somewhat arbitrarily in titled chapters, “Black Magic” isn’t much to look at – it was clearly originally intended for home screens – but it’s full of amusingly conceived and played characters in unpredictable situations. The film teeters on the edge of being too fanciful to work. Yet Tukel’s skill lies in turning such seeming arbitrariness to the benefit of a distinctive sensibility. It’s one that, as always, some viewers will consider as annoying or pointless, while others find it delightful.

The rather basic production package extends to the use of stock classical themes as the primary musical backing, another economy move that ends up serving the caustically breezy comic tenor just fine.

Also:

LOS ANGELES: “The Art of Racing in the Rain” star Milo Ventimiglia is a big Disney lover, so Thursday night’s premiere at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood was a dream come true for more reasons than one.

“I feel like finally Disney’s recognizing that I can work for them, seeing as how they wouldn’t hire me when I was 17 to clean the streets on Main Street,” Ventimiglia told Variety on the red carpet. “My mom worked at Disneyland at the Mad Hatter. My sister worked at the Candy Palace and I went to go get a job when I was 17 at Disneyland and it didn’t happen. They wouldn’t hire me.”

“So now… the years of wearing mouse ears and all that are finally paying off,” the star laughed, adding, “Disney picked up 20th Century Fox [which produces his Emmy-nominated series ‘This Is Us’] and they produced this, so I’m kind of like Disney through and through…They own me.”

Ventimiglia stars as race-car driver Denny Swift in the adaptation of Garth Stein’s best-selling novel about a man, his dog Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner) and the twists and turns they experience throughout their life together. Ventimiglia and Costner met for the first time at the premiere.

“The man’s been a hero of mine in front of the camera and behind the camera for so many years. For him to be a part of this was one big victory,” Ventimiglia said. “To shake the man’s hand, it’s just, it’s a big moment, you know. For me, I feel like personally I’m collecting these memories of people that I’ve worked with, that I’ve admired and he is absolutely one of them.” (RTRS)

By Dennis Harvey

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