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Sunday, 13 July 2014

Blood Ink: The Tavalou Tales (2013)

Director: Irin 'Iroc' Daniels
Stars: Tony Kure, Greg Tap, Izzy Escobedo, WIlliam Conner, Jenelle Lee Vela, Rudy Torres, Robert Clinkscales Jr and Emory Parker
The first time I saw Blood Ink: The Tavalou Tales, I knew I had to see it again because it apparently said a lot but did so in such a confusing way that my first viewing was spoiled. Initially I couldn't figure out who I was supposed to be watching, who the focus of the film was supposed to be, but that's because there are four leads here, each with their own subplot. There are many features that take this approach, setting up a host of different, seemingly unrelated story strands, that, over time, make their connections apparent and merge into one overriding story. What sets this aside from all such films that I've seen is that each of its various subplots appears to belong to a different genre. I have no doubt that Blood Ink is the greatest urban, gangster, hip hop, drugs, inspirational, thriller, paedophile, serial killer, horror, ghost story that I've ever seen, but then it's still in a category of one. The driving force behind the film, Irin 'Iroc' Daniels, highly regarded Phoenix rapper, calls it a 'paranormal Crash', but that's really just the beginning.

The complexity of the connections between characters is one of the high points. Daniels, who wrote the script with assistance from Miguel Gonzalez and Christopher Sheffield, told the Phoenix New Times that it 'really plays into the idea of six degrees of separation' and the frequency in which characters bump into each other, sometimes quite literally, is cleverly structured, especially as they do so even at points when their subplots haven't yet connected. The sheer number of these characters is a less successful aspect, as it's often tough to keep track of who everyone is. Certainly a second viewing helps immensely, but I'm still unsure as to who a bunch of these people are because either they weren't introduced by name or I blinked at that moment and missed it. Perhaps the complexity was too much for the running time; Crash ran 112 minutes, while this is two minutes shy of an hour and a half. Mostly, though, I think that problem is rooted in the editing, which is so fast paced that it's easy to get distracted and lose track.

That's evident from the very outset, when we meet two of the four central characters in the story. They're at a gas station and one realises that he's left his wallet somewhere so bums some change off the other. This scene runs a mere 45 seconds but it includes 16 cuts and this sort of thing continues for most of the film, especially the first half. It's vastly overdone and is frequently annoying. Every now and again, a shot is held for more than a couple of seconds at a time and we have to wonder if Daniels dropped off at the editing table. Fortunately the characters themselves are much less annoying and they're a notably varied bunch. Izzy Escobedo impresses as he earns his first credit as the initial lead character, Augustine; while his acting does show his inexperience, he's very believable as an ex-con who's trying to go straight and regain custody of his young daughter, who's stuck in the foster system. He's especially believable as a tattoo artist because he is one, working at the very studio he works at here, Dark Chapel in Mesa.
He's doing well until he's shot dead relatively early on in the film by a gangster because he has the gall to respond to insults by kicking him out of his shop. Greg Tap also debuts here and does better still in a role that calls for him to be perpetually pissed off at the world, possibly because his character's mother called him Louise instead of Luis. We're annoyed at him mostly, esé, because of how stereotypical, bro, his dialogue gets, homes. These conversations feel improvised and, to be honest, may well be realistic for all I know, but still seem as scarily overdone as the editing. Occasionally the profanity takes over too, in particularly stressful situations like when one of his crew is shot during a convenience store robbery, and he starts sounding like he's in a bad blaxploitation flick. It's after that that he hauls his lieutenants over to Dark Chapel to get matching tattoos of their fallen brother and two of the four strands of story connect. These two dominate the first half of the film and underpin the rest.

The least substantial strand is perhaps the most memorable, because Bill Connor looks freaky with his long beard as the silent protagonist of the third subplot. The film's website calls him James, but I don't believe I caught his name mentioned once in the actual picture, just as I don't believe he utters a single word throughout, even though he's by far the most experienced of the lead actors. He's a notably scary dude here, often shot in such a way that he looks notably bigger than his 5'11". We can only guess as to exactly what James's thing is, but he certainly kidnaps little girls; whether he's a paedophile or just a serial killer is up for grabs, but he's clearly bad in an utterly different way to the many other bad people we've seen thus far. He's also white, unlike a majority of the cast. Surprisingly, racial issues aren't really touched on here, even with such a wide and diverse multicultural cast of characters. Most of the violence is contained within each ethnic group and rarely spreads beyond it.

The fourth plot strand centres on John Corbin, who works at a record label. He's a big bubbly ladies' man and actor Tony Kure has an air of the young Forrest Whitaker about him. He's the least important of the leads for a long time, only to start to take over after the halfway mark. Technically he's the first character we see, as he's the one who lends money to Augustine at the gas station, but that good deed comes back to haunt him, literally, after a bad one. Driving while distracted by ladies on the phone, he runs over a little girl in the street and just as Karma stalks Louise and his henchmen, Guilt starts to eat away at John. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how Augustine's story connects to James's, but John finds his strand stuck in between them in some of the most overtly paranormal scenes of the film. The morality outlined does seem a little contradictory; we're given a few polemics against revenge, all while most of the characters we see are happily seeking it. Corbin is the only character who feels torn.
Backing up these four leads are a whole host of supporting actors, a few of whom are recognisable faces in the local film scene but most of whom were probably sourced from the communities interested in the idea of a hip hop movie made in Phoenix. Iroc Daniels has been a major figure in the local hip hop scene for a long time and I'm sure he knows everyone who's worth knowing. Far from the small casts and crews of most local pictures, he's suggested that over five hundred people worked on this one and that's very believable. While the action on screen is predominantly devoted to conflict, this whole project feels like the epitome of collaboration: a sprawling story with a multi-ethnic cast, most of whom are not regulars in the local film scene, and a huge crew. This is precisely the sort of picture that falls apart in the hands of someone who's never made one before, but Daniels held it together until completion and he deserves a great deal of credit for doing that.

The biggest problem with the supporting cast begins with how many of them there are and, by extension, how little screen time they get. Most of them fade into the background, often blurring together in clumps, but some manage to make their presence known. Barbie MacBride is by far the the best of them, playing a sort of crazy old gypsy woman who is really the physical manifestation of Karma. Christopher Sheffield, who contributed to the story, gets the brief role of a cop and makes the most of it. The little girl John hits with his car also manages to make herself memorable before that happens. Unfortunately there just isn't enough running time to give everyone their moment in the spotlight, so characters who might have had a presence in a longer picture are shoehorned in to play their part and then whisked away again, such as the pair of New Age lesbians who knock on James's door to introduce themselves because they've moved into his neighbourhood. They deserved more screen time.

At the end of the day, this is a good film but it fails to be a great one for a few reasons. It's too complex for its length, causing confusion, especially on a first viewing where we don't notice a lot. The editing is massively overdone, causing more confusion, even on a second viewing. The lead actors are impressive for people who mostly aren't really actors, but they're not impressive enough for us to overlook that fact. Connor knows exactly what he's doing, but I'd like to see Escobedo, Tap and especially Kure act again in something a little less stereotypical for their looks. Hilariously, some of the more wooden performances were given by some the actors I recognise. Technically it's a solid production, with the exception of that editing, which was done by Daniels himself. As if trying to counter the number of people who worked on the film, he wrote it, directed it, produced it, edited it, shot it and scored it himself. In five of those hats, he was decent, but in the sixth far less so. Maybe he'll be less enthusiastic on that front next time.

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