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Black Magic for White Boys
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by Jay Seaver

"Weird and skewed in how it's funny, and maybe that's the point."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I'm not particularly curious to see the previous iteration(s) of "Black Magic for White Boys", which got a fairly thorough retooling between its initial screening at Tribeca and when it played Fantasia two years later, including a time when it was retooled as a mini-series. I'm not sure whether or not to be surprised that this work still left it with obvious gaps and issues; it's a messy process but one that could have filled in all the gaps. It's still frequently funny in a charmingly homemade way; its seemingly effect-less effects and unrefined characters have the nice effect of Onur Tukel's film just laying what it wants out there.

It revolves around a small theater in Brooklyn, where "Larry the Magnificent" (Ronald Guttman) puts on an unimpressive magic show with the aid of assistants Lucy (Eva Dorrepaal) and Dean (Colin Buckingham), with a new intern in Alina (Deni Juhos) just brought in. Landlord Jamie (Jamie Block) is about to put them out of business with a 30% rent increase, but Larry has an ace in the hole - a line on real magic, the ability to make things disappear, although things apparently went wrong when he used it last - though, apparently, in a different way than his "freelance work" for Jamie. Meanwhile, Jamie's friend Oscar (Onur Tukel), who has been cheerfully living off a trust fund, is freaking out that girlfriend Chase (Charlie LaRose) is pregnant, while "pharmacist" Fred (Franck Raharinosy) is dispensing pills with nigh-magical effects to many members of the group.

This is the sort of quirky New York-based indie that can seem insular whether one is inside its particular bubble or not, since even such cockeyed enough versions of the fringe theater and arriviste worlds can still seem like a movie-length private joke, and writer/director/co-star Onur Tukel has been relatively prolific even if his films have been relatively small blips outside the festival circuit. Making that sort of movie puts a filmmaker in touch with a potentially pretty decent cast, even if Ronald Guttman is probably the only one whom most viewers will immediately think they've seen somewhere before. They are, by and large, playing people who are not quite so odd as to be interesting if one met them randomly but who can can drop a line that's selfish or oblivious or some combination of both so that it lands the right way as to give one a sense of who they are and have it not be completely awful, even when they have more or less accepted that they are kind of awful.

Between the stage magicians doing magic and the guys with more money and property than they can use recognizing themselves as selfish, Tukel and company can get a couple layers deep in the meta-narrative. Still, the obviousness and self-absorption of it serves a point, especially toward the back half when the film is liable to stop and kind of hammers away that while the likely audience was laughing at all the white-person drama and probably giving itself credit for laughing at their cohort's vapidness, black and poor people have been literally disappearing from Brooklyn so that more of these people can be moved in. It's brought up in just short of clumsy fashion and would maybe sink a movie trying to be more polished, but here, the filmmakers are kind of like the guys at the tiny theater revitalized by its owner demonstrating that he knows real magic - more resources than most, but pretty much still scraping things together to put on their show, so it mostly fits.

It fits especially well when they can just go with general goofiness, whether it be the Greek chorus of people waiting for the bus spouting what's occasionally nonsense and what's occasionally unwanted sanity, or the back and forth between a bunch of people with fine comic chops. The second half of the film sees a fair number of weird things go on with supporting characters that would probably work as parts of episodes in the miniseries version but are odd detours for a feature. It is, admittedly, kind of disconcerting to recognize that Tukel has given himself one of the more unabashedly selfish characters in the film - as much as the guy is supposed to be pretty much awful, having the whining about how tough it is for white guys come out of the filmmaker's mouth is a bit uncomfortable.

I suppose that the particular variety of tone-deafness is just another thing that makes it feel oddly authentic, though - like its characters, the film itself sometimes has trouble realizing when it's gone from hip or cool to over a line. Or maybe it's intentional, speaking to people in the language they understand, which it does better than most films trying the same trick.

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originally posted: 04/19/20 10:43:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Onur Tukel

Written by
  Onur Tukel

  Onur Tukel
  Ronald Guttman
  Leah Shore
  Jamie Block

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