Review: ‘The Blazing World’ (2021), starring Carlson Young, Udo Kier, Dermot Mulroney and Vinessa Shaw

October 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Carlson Young in “The Blazing World” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Blazing World” (2021)

Directed by Carlson Young

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Gulf Coast state and an unnamed Northern state in the United States, the horror film “The Blazing World” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A college student, who is haunted by the childhood death of her identical twin sister, experiences nightmarish hallucinations in her attempt to contact her sister from the dead. 

Culture Audience: “The Blazing World” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching horror movies that are more style over substance.

Udo Kier in “The Blazing World” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Blazing World” takes the concept of grief as an ongoing nightmare and jumbles it up in an incoherent horror movie. The cinematography is impressive, but the movie ultimately over-indulges in a lot of nonsense. Texas-born actress Carlson Young makes her feature-film debut as a writer and director in “The Blazing World,” which is based on her short film of the same name. Young also stars in “The Blazing World,” which has a bold and colorful visual style, but the screenplay (which Young co-wrote with Pierce Brown) is problematic because of its vapid emptiness.

In “The Blazing World,” Young portrays Margaret Winter, a college student who is haunted by the death of her identical twin sister Elizabeth, nicknamed Lizzie, who died by drowning in the family’s swimming pool when the twins were 6 years old. This death is shown in the beginning of the movie in a visually striking and eerie scene that might lead viewers to believe that “The Blazing World” might have potential of being a memorable horror movie.

In this flashback, 6-year-old Margaret (played by Josie Fink) and Elizabeth (played Lillie Fink) are dressed in identical pink dresses and catching fireflies outside in their backyard of their parents’ plantation-styled mansion that’s in an unnamed Gulf Coast state in America. (“The Blazing World” was actually filmed in Texas.) Margaret and Elizabeth’s parents Tom Winter (played by Dermot Mulroney) and Alice Winter (played by Vinessa Shaw) have a troubled marriage. Tom is an alcoholic, and he’s abusive to Alice.

Tom and Alice begin arguing inside the house, while Margaret and Elizabeth are outside. Margaret goes to a nearby window to look in on this argument. She hasn’t left Elizabeth’s side for very long when she makes a horrifying discovery: Elizabeth somehow ended up in the swimming pool, and she drowned.

Margaret also witnessed another frightening thing that she’s never talked about to other people: While Elizabeth was lying face down in the pool, Margaret saw a sinister-looking elderly man (played by Udo Kier) standing next to a black hole portal that’s suspended in the air in the backyard. The man made a beckoning hand gesture, indicating that he wanted Margaret to come over to him. Margaret was too scared to move, but throughout the story and into her adulthood, she keeps seeing this man, who eventually reveals to her that his name is Lained.

Of course, the Winter family is devastated by Elizabeth’s tragic death. There are some brief flashbacks to when Elizabeth was still alive. But, for the most part, “The Blazing World” takes place about 15 years after the drowning. Margaret grows up to be a mostly sad woman who struggles with mental health issues.

The movie then flash-forwards to when Margaret is living on campus at an unnamed university in a Northern state. There’s no indication of what she’s studying as a college student. But what is very clear is that Margaret is obsessed with the idea of different worldly dimensions. She’s a devoted fan of a TV personality named Dr. Cruz (played by Liz Mikel), who spouts theories on her TV show about alternate realities existing and that the human brain is able to access astral and spiritual portals.

There’s a somewehat unnecessary scene where Margaret, who lives near Dr. Cruz, happens to see Dr. Cruz walking to her car. Margaret approaches Dr. Cruz and gushes like a star-struck fan when she meets her. Dr. Cruz cynically tells Margaret that she fits the demographic of Dr. Cruz’s typical audience member: “Middle-class, 20s, white female: our key demographic. You keep us alive, whether I feel good about it or not. I’m not going to complain about a captive audience.”

When Margaret asks Dr. Cruz if someone can be trapped in an astral portal and brought back, Dr. Cruz vaguely answers: “Sometimes, if we don’t like the answers the world gives us, we just keep looking.” Margaret insists that she’s not crazy. It’s an assertion that she has to keep telling herself and other people when she starts seeing things that are very weird.

One day, Margaret gets a call from her mother Alice, who tells Margaret that Alice and Tom have sold their family home and that they are moving out soon. The fact that this is news to Margaret indicates how long it’s been since she and Alice have spoken to each other. Alice invites Margaret to go back to the family home to pick out any items that she wants to keep.

If Alice sounds medicated when she calls, that’s because she probably is. She mentions to Margaret that if Margaret has some Ambien pills, then Margaret should bring the Ambien with her when she comes to visit. Viewers can infer that Alice has become a pill-popping addict.

Alice is eager to see Margaret, but Margaret is reluctant to go back to the family home because it brings back bad memories for her. However, Margaret does back to the family home, where her parents’ marriage is just as miserable as ever, and her father’s alcoholism has gotten worse. Margaret’s visit triggers events that set her down a path of hallucinations where she sees more of Lained lurking around and sometimes near the black hole portal.

In many of these visions, Lained tries to kill her, such as by strangling her while she’s in a bathtub. Expect to see numerous scenes of Margaret having these visions and then suddenly waking up, as if she had a nightmare. It becomes repetitive to the point of inducing viewer boredom. It should come as no surprise that Margaret becomes convinced that Elizabeth is trapped in a portal somewhere, which leads to the part of the movie where Margaret tries to find Elizabeth so she can reunite with her twin.

“Blazing World” also has a time-wasting subplot of Margaret having a reunion in real life with an ex-boyfriend named Blake (played by John Karna), who takes her on a date to a nightclub named The Woods, which has a forest-themed decor and is eerily deserted. Blake recently completed rehab for drug addiction and is happy to see Margaret back in town again. He also makes it obvious that he wouldn’t mind getting back together with her, but Margaret doesn’t see Blake as more than a possible hookup. When Margaret tries to confide in him about her hallucinations, he assumes that her hallucinations are drug-related.

Three other friends whom Margaret knew from high school show up at The Woods, because this trio is a band that’s performing at the club. They are lead singer Margot (played by Soko), bass player Rob (played by Breckyn Hager) and drummer Sean (played by Ace Anderson). Margot does a tarot card reading for Margaret and states the obvious: “You’ve had a huge emotional loss. And everything that comes after that is a chain reaction to that early trauma. Be careful. If you spend too much time in the spiritual realm, you might not be able to come back.”

“Blazing World” seems to have the right intentions, but more thought should have been put into developing characters in the movie that viewers can care about, in order for the terror to be more effective. The hallucinations in the story can be described as candy-coated psychedelia. There are lots of hues in hot pink, bright red and neon blue. However, this eye-catching imagery can’t make up for the weak story arc that’s clumsily structured.

None of “The Blazing World” actors does anything remarkable. Kier’s Lained character is the most memorable, but Kier has played so many creepy characters in movies, this performance is just another version of those characters. “The Blazing World” could have been a tour-de-force showcase for Young as an actor/writer/director for this movie. Unfortunately, the result is a movie that looks like a poorly conceived student film that had the budget to afford cinematography and visual effects that are better than the average student film.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Blazing World” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 15, 2021.

Review: ‘Miss Juneteenth,’ starring Nicole Beharie, Kendrick Sampson and Alexis Chikaeze

January 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nicole Beharie in “Miss Juneteenth” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Miss Juneteenth”

Directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples

Culture Representation: Taking place in Fort Worth, Texas, the drama “Miss Juneteenth” features a predominantly African American cast (with a few white people and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant winner, who has dead-end jobs and is struggling financially, pressures her reluctant teenage daughter to enter the same contest so that the daughter can have a chance to win college scholarship money.

Culture Audience: “Miss Juneteenth” will appeal to people who are interested in well-acted and realistic dramas about how people deal with regrets over some of their life choices.

Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze in “Miss Juneteenth” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Several reality TV shows about beauty pageants with underage girls as contestants have exposed what is common knowledge in the pageant world: These kiddie pageants really aren’t about the children. These pageants are about the adults who want to show off their children and get bragging rights and prize money if their kids win these contests.

The dramatic film “Miss Juneteenth” has a beauty pageant for teenage girls as the driving force behind much of the characters’ actions. But the movie goes deeper than just the superficial aspects of preparing for this contest. “Miss Juneteenth,” anchored by a standout performance by Nicole Beharie, is a story about a mother with broken dreams who’s living vicariously through her daughter to try to recapture those dreams and “do over” certain parts of her life.

In “Miss Juneteenth” (the feature-film debut of writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples), Beharie portrays Turquoise Jones, who is floundering in all aspects of her life in her hometown of Forth Worth, Texas. Turquoise’s main job is working as a bartender at a dive bar called Wayman’s, named after its no-nonsense owner Wayman (played by Marcus M. Mauldin), who considers Turquoise to be his most reliable and trusteed employee. In the beginning of the film, it’s shown that Turquoise’s job at the bar also entails janitor duties and being the bar’s unofficial manager who keeps track of the business revenue.

As Turquoise cleans a toilet in one of the bar’s bathrooms, one of her co-workers named Betty Ray (played by Liz Mikel) watches her and comments: “I’ll never get over seeing Miss Juneteenth cleaning toilets … You practically running this bar.” Turquoise is good enough at her job as a bartender that it’s shown early on in the movie that she can make $800 in tips in one night.

Turquoise also occasionally works part-time as a mortuary assistant at Baker Funeral Home, where she prepares bodies for funerals by doing their makeup. Her mortuary boss, Bacon Baker (played by Akron Watson), whose family owns the business, is a bachelor who makes it clear that he’s attracted to Turquoise and is interested in dating her. Bacon doesn’t cross the line into blatant sexual harassment, and he’s respectful of Turquoise’s wishes to keep their relationship strictly platonic. In an early scene in the movie, Bacon tells Turquoise the bad news that business has been slow at the funeral home, so he’s going to have to reduce her work hours.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Turquoise, because she’s been preoccupied with having her teenage daughter Kai (played by Alexis Chikaeze) enter the upcoming Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant. The costs for the Miss Juneteenth pageant require a certain amount of money that Turquoise knows will break her household budget. Kai, who is 14 and turns 15 years old during the course of the story, is vivacious, intuitive and slightly rebellious.

Kai isn’t completely enthusiastic about the pageant, which is a contest that means more to Turquoise than it means to Kai. However, Kai goes along with what her mother wants because she wants to make her mother happy. As time goes on, Kai sees how much her mother is willing to sacrifice in order to get Kai in the pageant.

Turquoise wants Kai to win the contest because of the pageant’s grand prize: scholarship money to attend a historically black college or university. But Turquoise also has ulterior motives, which have more to do with herself than with Kai. Turquoise is a former Miss Juneteenth winner who didn’t live up to her expected potential. And although Turquoise never says it out loud, it becomes obvious that Turquoise wants to redeem herself, through her daughter Kai, in the Miss Juneteenth pageant.

It’s briefly explained in the movie what Juneteenth is, for people who don’t know the historical significance to African Americans. Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865: the date that African Americans in Texas found out that they were freed slaves—two years after the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in the United States. Juneteenth is a reminder of the importance of people not only having civil rights but also knowing about civil rights and living it.

Turquoise was a Miss Juneteenth winner in 2004. What happened to her since then isn’t revealed all at once in the movie, but it’s spoken about in bits and pieces, in the way that people speak about things that they’re slightly ashamed of in their past. Turquoise was headed to college and was going to use the Miss Juneteenth scholarship money for her university tuition. But at some point, Turquoise got pregnant with Kai. Turquoise abandoned her college plans, and she married Kai’s father Ronnie (played by Kendrick Sampson), who ended up having a lot of personal struggles with menial jobs and an arrest record.

The marriage fell apart. Ronnie and Turquoise separated, but haven’t gone through with a divorce. It isn’t really made clear when Ronnie and Turquoise split up, but at some point, he became a deadbeat dad. Out of financial desperation, Turquoise became a stripper—something she’s not proud of, but she doesn’t deny it when other people remind her or when Kai finds out in a humiliating way.

Turquoise’s on-again/off-again relationship with Ronnie is complicated, because she and Ronnie have recently begun sleeping together again, but they are still living in separate homes. Kai notices that her father has been sleeping over in Turquoise’s bedroom, and eventually Turquoise and Ronnie let it be known that they might be getting back together permanently. Turquoise wants to take things slow, because it’s implied that Ronnie did a lot of things in the past to emotionally hurt her, and she’s gradually giving him a chance to earn back her trust.

Ronnie currently works as a mechanic and seems to be trying to get his life back on track. In in an early scene in the movie, he promises Turquoise that he’s going to “do right” by her and Kai this time. When Ronnie finds out that Turquoise wants Kai to be in the Miss Juneteenth pageant, he doesn’t hesitate to give Turquoise some cash to help out with the expenses.

Turquoise appreciates Ronnie’s generosity, but the money that she gets from Ronnie isn’t enough to cover all the pageant costs. Turquoise’s level of obsession with the Miss Juneteenth pageant becomes very apparent when she has a choice of paying her house’s electricity bill (which is already overdue) or paying the pageant entry fee. Turquoise is also adamant that Kai should have a “fancy” new dress from one of the top boutiques in the area, not a previously owned dress or a dress from a discount store.

Turquoise chooses not to pay the electricity bill, in order to pay the pageant entry fee. And the house’s electricity is turned off on (of all days) Kai’s 15th birthday. Kai is upset, but Turquoise tries to put a positive spin on this turn of events and assures Kai that their lack of electricity is only temporary. Later in the movie, Turquoise runs into other financial problems that affect her ability to pay for certain things.

Why is Turquoise so fixated on this pageant? What is she trying to prove? As the story goes on, it becomes apparent that she’s having an early mid-life crisis. Turquoise is regretting a lot of decisions that she made her teens and 20s, and she feeling that she’s disappointed herself and others who had high hopes for Turquoise. The Miss Juneteenth pageant and the scholarship money that she won represented Turquoise’s ticket to a better life. And now, she feels like she really blew it.

And to make it worse for Turquoise, she’s still stuck in her hometown, where she feels like too many people know how much of a “failure” she turned out to be. She’s reminded of it in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example, when Turquoise and Kai go to a sign-up table to enter the Miss Juneteenth Pageant, Turquoise encounters a snooty woman named Clarissa (played by Lisha Hackney), who is on the pageant committee but who isn’t a judge.

Clarissa makes a snide comment that if Kai wins, hopefully Kai will actually be able to use the scholarship prize. There’s obvious tension between Turquoise and Clarissa. And so, it comes as no surprise when Turquoise tells Kai that Clarissa was in the same 2004 Miss Juneteenth Pageant that Turquoise won. It seems that Clarissa still holds a grudge over losing, but Clarissa is getting gloating satisfaction over seeing Turquoise not living up to her expected potential.

The current pageant contestants and some of their parents are given a tour of the Miss Juneteenth headquarters, which has a room with photos of past Miss Juneteenth winners. Turquoise’s picture is on the wall, but she doesn’t get mentioned during the tour. The tour guide points out some notable former Miss Juneteenth winners whom the organization seems to be the most proud of: a civil rights activist, a surgeon and a congressman’s wife. By saying that being a congressman’s wife is an example of being an accomplished former Miss Juneteenth, it shows an old-fashioned mindset that a woman is considered “accomplished” based on who she marries, not her own individual achievements.

It’s this underlying conservatism in the pageant that Turquoise is acutely aware of when she pressures Kai to make a certain choice in the talent segment of the pageant. Kai wants to do a hip-hop dance routine. Turquoise says that it’s a bad idea because she thinks that hip-hop isn’t dignified enough for Kai or the pageant. Instead, Turquoise insists that Kai recite the Maya Angelou poem “Phenomenal Woman.”

The arguments that Turquoise and Kai have over what Kai wants to do to express her talent have less to do with a generation gap and more to do with the image that Turquoise wants Kai to project. Almost all of Turquoise’s decisions for Kai in the pageant are about making Kai look like she’s in a higher social class than she really is. Turquoise knows putting on these false airs is a charade, since there are too many people involved in the pageant who know that Kai comes from a working-class household. However, Turquoise still forges ahead with the hope that Kai will be judged as a “classier” person than the type of person Turquoise has been judged to be.

The intergenerational conflicts in the Jones family isn’t just about Turquoise and Kai. Turquoise has major issues with her own mother Charlotte (played by Lori Hayes), who is a devout, churchgoing Christian but who has a past as an alcoholic and neglectful mother. Turquoise and Charlotte have a very strained relationship, and they’re not in contact with each other very much.

Charlotte disapproves of how Turquoise’s life has turned out, and Charlotte thinks that Turquoise’s life would improve if Turquoise went to church on a regular basis. Charlotte also disapproves of Turquoise working in a bar. Turquoise is not religious and wants no part of Charlotte’s Bible-thumping lifestyle.

Turquoise also feels lingering resentment toward Charlotte because Turquoise had a dysfunctional and unhappy childhood due to Charlotte’s alcoholism. There are hints that Charlotte was emotionally and verbally abusive to Turquoise. It’s shown in the story that because Turquoise and Charlotte both haven’t completely conquered certain demons from their past, it’s caused them to distrust each other and made it hard for them to respect each other.

And it’s why Charlotte is skeptical about Turquoise’s goal to have Kai win the Miss Juneteenth pageant, which Charlotte calls “pipe dreams.” Charlotte believes that Turquoise has set a bad example for Kai because Turquoise squandered the opportunities that Turquoise got from winning the Miss Juneteenth pageant. This disappointment has created an oppressive circle of shame where Charlotte makes Turquoise feel bad about these wasted opportunities, while Turquoise feels enough remorse about herself and tries to prevent Charlotte from making her feel worse.

The greatest strength of “Miss Juneteenth” is how authentically the movie portrays a specific part of African American culture, without being pandering or exploitative. The movie also goes beyond race to show how Americans’ self-esteem is often wrapped up in the idea that someone is a “failure” if that person hasn’t achieved the American Dream, whatever the definition of the American Dream is. The world of child/teen beauty pageants in the U.S. represents a small slice of wanting to achieve the American Dream. And it’s why many working-class families (usually mothers), just like Turquoise, spend a lot of money they can’t afford to have their daughters in these pageants.

“Miss Juneteenth” is also a poignant story about the sometimes-uncomfortable process of reconciling a young person’s dreams with the reality of how that person’s life turned out when that person isn’t so young anymore. Turquoise wants to be more than the stereotype of a financially struggling African American mother who’s the only head of her household, but she’s also feeling shame that her life in many ways has become that stereotype. Turquoise doesn’t want Kai to make the same mistakes, but Turquoise also wants to use Kai (and the hope that Kai will win the Miss Juneteenth pageant) as “proof” that Turquoise did something right with her life after all.

With the skilled and naturalistic direction and writing of Godfrey Peoples, “Miss Juneteenth” is a convincing depiction of complicated people who don’t seem like characters only created for a movie but more like characters who accurately represent a lot of people in America today. Beharie gives a captivating performance as the flawed but industrious Turquoise, who knows she’s not perfect, but is doing her best to improve her life. This determined mother sees her daughter winning the Miss Juneteenth pageant as the answer to her own immediate problems without necessarily understanding that the pageant can’t really fix her life in the way it needs to be fixed. Above all, the movie is a worthwhile inspiration for showing that chasing after what you don’t have shouldn’t come at the expense of appreciating what you do have.

Vertical Entertainment released “Miss Juneteenth” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 19, 2020.

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