Review by Sean Boelman
The tragic true story behind Reefa is one that deserves to be seen by audiences on a large scale, but the way in which filmmaker Jessica Kavana Dornbusch presents it is somewhat questionable. Occasionally moving but more frequently contrived, this attempt to explore topical themes instead feels like a paint-by-numbers biopic.
The film tells the story of Colombian immigrant and artist Israel “Reefa” Hernandez, as his pursuit of artistic expression leads him down paths of love and danger. There is no denying the importance of Hernandez’s story, but the first hour of the movie is spent slowly building to the third act, which is what demands to be seen.
Perhaps the biggest issue with this film is that it doesn’t seem to trust the audience enough to sympathize with the characters. Because Dornbusch’s script tries to cram an entire coming-of-age arc into an hour of runtime, the movie not only feels rushed, it also feels artificial despite being based on a true story.
There are also some interesting decisions made in the film in regards to perspective. The choice to position Hernandez’s white girlfriend as one of the main characters as opposed to his immigrant family and friends is an odd one. Thankfully, a major course correction happens before the movie gets into the hard-hitting material, but by that point, audiences should have already recognized the pandering.
This story has the potential to have such a strong message about racism, police brutality, and xenophobia, but Dornbusch pulls way too many of her punches. Perhaps in an attempt to remain respectful, the filmmaker seems unwilling to get too political with her script, opting for little more than fleeting references to the relevant issues.
Tyler Dean Flores gives an exceptional performance in his leading role. In fact, the subtlety and humanity that he is able to bring to the character almost feels out-of-place in a film that otherwise deals pretty heavily in sentimentality. The supporting turns aren’t as strong, but Flores is surprisingly able to carry the movie on his own.
The film is much better-made than a majority of independent biopics, largely thanks to the focus that it has on Hernandez’s art. There are some moments that are a bit heavy-handed with the score and execution, but Dornbusch manages to maintain an overall feeling of tastefulness to her movie, even in the more difficult moments.
Reefa works a lot better than one would expect it to, but the idea of making a film like this out of such a story is still problematic. If nothing else, the movie serves to introduce us to Tyler Dean Flores, who is a star waiting to happen.
Reefa is now in theaters and on VOD.
Reviewed by Adam Donato
Director Ben Wheatley, most notable for his films Kill List and Free Fire, makes a limited theatrical release in the form of In The Earth. This newest entry in Wheatley’s film catalogue stars Joel Fry as a scientist who is chaperoned by a park scout, played by Ellora Torchia, as they venture off into the forest. Rounding out the supporting cast is Reece Shearsmith and Hayley Squires who are later found in the woods. This wannabe A24 horror film may surprise you based on the marketing as it is very different from the traditional horror dart.
The pandemic that arose from the COVID-19 disease just might have changed movies forever (says an article that is being written just over 12 months since the pandemic started). Movies stopped going to theaters as people were locked into their homes. Ben Wheatley is not included in people, for he went out in the woods and made a movie. This movie seems to be heavily inspired by real-world occurrences. There’s a deadly virus going around and people are wearing masks. That being said, this movie is relevant, but is it good?
Just like the pandemic, the movie is uncomfortable and people are annoying. The trailer makes it out to be this big supernatural romp through the woods, but the majority of the conflict arises from the crazy people they find in the woods. Major injuries will have the weak stomached audience members feeling queasy. The strobe lighting and intentionally unbearable noises that are made succeed in being displeasing to watch. Is it scary? Not really, more thrilling than anything else. It’s less wanting the main characters to succeed and more wanting the bad guys to fail.
Talking about the editing in a horror movie is odd because sometimes it’s off putting, but to give the benefit of the doubt to the filmmaker seems like a stretch. This movie has so many cuts that feel rough. It’s noticeably awkward throughout the movie where there’s a cut that feels like it doesn’t belong. This is usually during the more calm moments in the film, whereas the horror scenes are much more effective. There’s so many times where things are flashing on the scream and one feels like there’s hidden images that leave the viewer feeling overwhelmed.
The performances are enjoyable. Fry and Torchia are more reactionary, in contrast to Shearsmith and Squires who get a lot more opportunity to shine. As stated previously, the scares come much less from the supernatural elements involved and more so from the human forces. There are cruel acts performed and some decision making that is down right baffling. It really is a mystery whether or not anyone involved will survive in this scenario. The tension is brought out by the characters, which is a nice change of pace from standard horror fodder that would rather jump scare its audience.
Overall, In The Earth is hard to peg when it comes to rating. It really feels like personal preference when it’s something so niche like this. For example, it would not be good to recommend for non-horror fans, but also unwise to give a blanket recommendation to horror fans. It’s upscale horror, but if one sees this as pretentious then that’s totally applicable. Regardless, there’s clear effort and craftsmanship present and anyone familiar with the filmmaker should have an enjoyable time. To the horror fan that loves something like Hereditary, this is the lite version of that, which is certainly no insult.
In the Earth hits theaters on April 16.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Movies about assassins aren't anything new these days. There are a lot of films with variations on the assassin tropes. The lonely man or woman lives off of the grid until he or she is brought back into which fictional or nonfictional agency he or she may work for. Trigger Point follows a lot of these tropes but is entertaining nonetheless.
Barry Pepper plays an assassin who lives off of the grid in a sleepy town until a man comes looking for him. He gets brought back into a world of guns for hire and espionage. He doesn't know who to trust — if anybody. This film treads very familiar ground in this genre, but it still does a good job of being an enjoyable film to watch.
Barry Pepper, like a lot of other actors who have portrayed lone gunmen such as this, is a very proud and private man. He has a similar routine every day: wake up, go to a little diner and get some tea and talk up the waitress, and then go across the street to a little book shop and get a book from the shopkeeper (who may or may not be his handler). A lot of James Bond-type stuff just in America instead of jolly old England.
Assassins have a lot of baggage from their pasts that still haunt them each day. The one in this film is no different. This allows the viewer to get back the story on the lead character while not interrupting the flow of the film and the story within. The memories he is trying to unpack might help him figure out what is going on in the present day. And this works for the overall plot of the film in the end.
Besides Pepper, there are some good performances from the waitress in the diner (Nazneen Contractor), an old contact in his agency (Colm Feore), his daughter (Eve Harlow), and the book store owner (Jane Eastwood). They all add a semblance of reality to this fictional tale of assassins, special ops teams, and secret agencies. Every film needs a good supporting cast of characters to help it glow better.
The Ontario location is a beautiful one as well. The cinematographer, Brett Van Dyke, captures all the vistas in this area of the country perfectly. From farms houses in the middle of fields to little downtown streets. Even a shot or two of the ocean, adding a nice small town comfort to a film that has extraordinary events taking place in and around it.
Brad Turner, the director, does a solid job bringing this tried and true world of assassins and hitmen to life. He sets it in a nice sleepy town off of the coast of the United States which gives it a realistic feeling. Solid work from Pepper and the company makes for an entertaining film. Even though this genre has been done to death this film can still be an enjoyable entry.
Trigger Point hits theaters and VOD on April 16.
BILL TRAYLOR: CHASING GHOSTS -- A Congratulatory Art Documentary Exploring an Interesting Perspective on History
Review by Sean Boelman
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts tells the story of a Black artist with whose work a majority of viewers probably aren’t familiar. And while the film offers an interesting glimpse into the history of African-American art, it gets a bit too caught up in congratulation to be as revelatory as it had the potential to be.
The movie tells the story of the eponymous artist who, after being freed from slavery, produced a prolific body of art as a homeless man in Montgomery. Even though Traylor’s art is a bit of an acquired taste, there is no doubt that the life he lived is extraordinary and this secondhand account of his tale is pretty fascinating.
Filmmaker Jeffrey Wolf’s biggest success is in making the audience feel like Traylor’s story is one that already should have been known. Within the art world, Traylor’s recognition is relatively recent, and so Wolf wisely chooses to present this documentary as the audience discovering this artist, as a majority of viewers likely will be doing so.
Some of the more fascinating portions of the film deal with the historical context of Traylor’s work. Analysis of his drawings is presented as to how his images reflect the society of the time, from slavery through the era of segregation. These are portions of history that are often discussed, but rarely from this perspective, and it’s quite interesting to see.
On the other hand, the portions of the movie exploring Traylor’s artistic contributions aren’t as effective. The film features plenty of his work, but focuses more on analyzing what it means than what makes it artistically interesting. A brief discussion of how he experimented with unique mediums is compelling, but in this regard, Wolf’s art documentary leaves something to be desired.
A majority of the interviews in the movie are from contemporary artists, scholars, and critics, and while they are somewhat informational, they also seem to adulate Traylor’s work. It’s understandable for documentaries like this to contain a lot of praise, but there isn’t enough evidence given outside of the historical argument to warrant this level of on-screen commendation.
Wolf keeps his film short, at a mere seventy-five minutes, but this is one of those cases where shorter did not equal better. Often, art documentaries feel like they can be made more concise, but in this case, there are a lot of missing elements despite having all this extra time to spare. Wolf could (and should) have gone into more depth on some of his arguments.
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts makes an argument for the eponymous artist as an underappreciated master to mixed success. The historical angle here is excellent, but audiences will be left wanting more from it as an art documentary.
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts hits virtual cinemas on April 16. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Review by Sean Boelman
Chinese action films are an entirely different breed of action filmmaking compared to their American counterparts, and sometimes they don’t translate well to a Western audience. Although The Rookies has some fun moments, the attempts to Westernize its sensibilities are distracting at best and laughable at worst.
The movie tells the story of an extreme sports fan who, along with his amateur scientist friend and a police officer, is recruited by an international secret agent to stop an illegal trade. It’s clear that this is supposed to be a parody of the espionage genre, but a lot of the comedy is lost in translation, causing this to become little more than a B-movie with a few cool action sequences.
For much of the first hour, the film is all over the place. It can’t decide whether it wants to be a globe-trotting adventure, a broad comedy, or a gritty crime thriller. When it settles into its rhythm during the second act, basically becoming a knock-off Mission: Impossible, it becomes much more enjoyable to watch.
Unfortunately, the central battle between good and evil here is very generic, and is the totality of the movie’s substance. There are some interesting threads about corruption in the police, but perhaps in an attempt to satisfy government censors, the punches are very lightweight and the dirty cops characters are instead presented as mere goofs.
Perhaps the film’s biggest issue is the selection of its protagonist. The extreme sports junkie who becomes the central action hero has a far less compelling arc than the good cop fighting for what’s right when the institution abandons its morals. But again, this was likely too confrontational of an arc to serve as the crux of an international production such as this.
The star power in the movie for American audiences comes from Milla Jovovich, who has a prominent supporting role. She gets to kick ass in a couple of scenes, but for the most part, she is relegated to the sidelines as the coach for the Chinese stars to take center stage. And Talu Wang and Sandrine Pinna do a solid job of carrying the film.
Of course, as is the case with a lot of live action movies making their way to American audiences, this film is presented in a truly atrocious English dub. The voice acting feels out-of-place and isn’t even mixed in very well. It’s a shame, because this distracts from what are some legitimately entertaining set pieces.
The Rookies is entertaining enough, but it’s almost guaranteed that it would have been a lot more fun to watch in its unadulterated, subtitled version. Hopefully if this would-be franchise gets off the ground, audiences will be given more options than an abysmal dub.
The Rookies hits theaters and VOD on April 16.
Review by Sean Boelman
Film is definitely an artistic medium, but there are some instances in which audiences aren’t looking for anything more than mindless entertainment. George Gallo’s Vanquish should be one of those cases, but because of the director’s horrible sense of overambition, this action flick that wants to be an art house picture is nearly unwatchable.
The movie is about a former cop who forces a retired drug courier to take out a series of gangsters by kidnapping her daughter. It’s really thin plotting whose only purpose is to catapult the protagonist into a series of altercations with progressively quirkier villains. The influences from Asian cinema here are clear, but Gallo seems to fundamentally misunderstand what makes the genre tick, aping the style without any of the edginess or originality.
Gallo should be given props for actually trying to do something with this straight-to-VOD action film, unlike a lot of other similar movies which settle for rapid editing in an attempt to create excitement. Still, his colorful and gimmicky approach doesn’t fare much better, frequently distracting from the choreography that should have been the star of the show.
For better or worse, once the action gets going, it never really lets up. It’s a high-octane ninety minutes, but none of it is memorable for the right reasons. What should be yet another example of forgettable action schlock is instead a laughably bad attempt at making something more out of a wholly underdeveloped script.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the film (although there are many) is the fact that none of the character motivations make much sense. There is some expositional dialogue meant to explain why these characters are doing what they are doing, but it’s hard to really sympathize with any of these shallow archetypes that are meant to be characters.
The movie couldn’t even bother to give the audience any enjoyable villains. Apart from one scene towards the end that might briefly pique the viewer’s interest, the opponents that the protagonist faces are merely a series of goons and bosses. At a certain point, the only thing that distinguishes one scene from the last is how Gallo changes the look.
It’s genuinely sad that Ruby Rose continues to get lackluster projects like this, because she is an action star waiting to happen. Her talent with the choreography is obvious in this and other films she has appeared in recently, but they are so dull as a whole that she can’t manage to break out of this dollar bin void.
Vanquish might have been enjoyable if it wasn’t trying to be something that it’s not. However, since filmmaker George Gallo felt the need to try to give this an upscale flair, it’s hard to enjoy any of the fight sequences it might have had to offer.
Vanquish hits theaters on April 16 and VOD on April 20.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Jakob’s Wife had its premiere at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. This horror film is the sophomore feature from writer/director Travis Stevens. Even though it’s a fun and campy film, the movie is dragged down by its uneven pace and unconventional execution.
Anne is a woman who is married to Jakob, a local preacher. Throughout her marriage, she has felt herself being minimized and overlooked. After a chance encounter with a mysterious entity, she develops a violent and troubling appetite. Now, Jakob must fight for his marriage and his wife. It’s an interesting premise that is ripe for campy horror fun.
The script by Mark Steensland, Kathy Charles, and Stevens, is rather uneven throughout. The dialogue can be bland and derivative at times. However, the movie doesn’t indulge too heavily in exposition, and the script does a decent job of trusting its audience especially with the more supernatural elements of the film.
The acting in the film is enjoyable even if it can seem silly at times. The film is led by Barbara Crampton, who plays Anne, and Larry Fessenden, who plays Jakob. Crampton, a horror veteran, feels right at home in this movie. She does a decent job at handling the non-horror elements, but she excels in all of her horror scenes. Fessenden does a great job at playing off of Crampton, but on his own, he lacks the same infectious energy as Crampton.
One of the surprising features of the film is how it tackles marriage dynamics. It tackles some pretty complex ideas of the troubles that stem from marriage and the personal inadequacies one might feel as a result. Unfortunately, once the movie makes strides in exploring this theme, it stops short of anything revelatory.
The film will most likely please genre enthusiasts due to its campy nature. There are plenty of bloody and gory moments throughout that lack a certain earnestness that one might expect from other horror films. This makes it somewhat unconventional, and it may alienate novices to the genre. Stevens’ execution of his scenes is works sporadically, but it lacks conviction at times throughout.
The pacing is also all over the place in the movie. The movie steadily builds up in the first half only for the second half to be tonally inconsistent and off-putting as a result. It’s not bad by any means, but it also doesn’t reach its full potential due to the shortcomings of various elements in the film.
Jakob’s Wife is an enjoyable horror film at times that shows promise for Stevens as a horror director, but it doesn’t do much to subvert expectations. It will most likely appeal to horror fans while the average viewer may have a hard time getting behind it.
Jakob’s Wife is in select theaters and on VOD April 16.
Review by Camden Ferrell
Monday had its premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. This is the fourth feature film from writer/director Argyris Papadimitropoulos. While the leads are charming, the film feels too repetitive and not insightful enough into relationships to be memorable.
Mickey and Chloe are two Americans in Greece who come together after a night of spontaneous passion. We then see this summer fling expand into something more as we see this couple try and maintain their love through the trials and tribulations of life. It’s a simple and sweet premise that is evocative of other romance films.
The script by Rob Hayes and Papadimitropoulos is adequate if nothing else. There isn’t any profound or insightful dialogue, but it does occasionally excel at naturalistic dialogue. The writing is at its best when we are watching the simple connection between the two lovers, but it doesn’t do as well when trying to progress the plot and events surrounding these characters.
The acting is the highlight of the film. The movie is led by Sebastian Stan and Denise Gough. From the start, they have impeccable chemistry, and this remains fairly consistent throughout the film. They play off of each other really well, and this is true even in the scenes of tension and drama. When the script is lacking, you can usually count on them still being able to carry the scene in a believable way.
The movie has the potential to say a lot about self-destructive couples and the downside of passion, and it briefly touches on it, but it doesn’t give it the consideration it warrants. The characters are borderline unlikeable, and this paves the way for some great themes, but it also fails to expound on that. It doesn’t fully explore the destructive capabilities of their romance in a way that feels palpable or significant.
For what the film lacks in its themes, it makes up for in its passion. It is an undeniably sensual film that builds off of the chemistry of its leads. There is lots of onscreen passion to elevate the relationship, which is handled gracefully by Stan and Gough. It is interesting to see their relationship progress over an indeterminate period of time even if it feels hollow as a whole.
The movie can often find itself feeling repetitive by design, but it still creates an inconsistent and somewhat bland story that doesn’t do its characters justice. There are a handful of side characters that feel unnecessary, and it fails to recognize its most valuable assets and its potential themes. It’s not bad, but it is disappointing considering the talent involved in the film.
Monday is a passionate albeit underwhelming film about a summer romance that becomes much more than that. Stan and Gough are captivating leads, but they are brought down by the script and repetitive execution of the film.
Monday is in select theaters and on VOD April 16.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
In the last four or five years, the horror genre has had a resurgence of creative minds writing and directing new and innovative horror-related projects, films, and television shows. Jordan Peele led the charge, but studios such as Warner Bros., Sony, and A24 have done a solid job of releasing some great horror films. There have also been a few foreign horror films that have been quite good as well. Unfortunately, Honeydew falls short of those lofty expectations
The film starts with a couple taking a trip. They stop to camp in a patch of woods off the side of the road. A man tells them they have to leave because they're on his land. They get ready to leave, but then get stranded after their car breaks down. They start walking and end up at a house with an old lady and her so-called son. The two of them have more to their story than meets the eye.
This film has some interesting elements to it that make it different than most other horror films. It has some sound editing tricks to add to the suspense and scares of the film. The problem is they don't work very well. They just get in the way of the story. The film also has music playing over all the sounds they have added to the film. All of this makes the film weird and strange and gives off odd vibes. These editing and musical decisions aren't effective in making the film better, instead doing more damage to the flow and feel of the film.
Kids getting lost in the woods or going to strange houses aren't anything new in this genre either. They've been done to death. So trying new things makes sense, but not if they don't work. Writer-director Devereux Milburn takes some chances with the script and directorial decisions. The plot is a lot like a few other films we've seen in recent memory though so it doesn't make this film very original.
The cast isn't that spectacular either in Honeydew. If the filmmaker were to have gotten some bigger names it may have drawn a crowd to this film. Instead, this cast of unknowns just brings the fact that this film isn't any good more to the forefront. It's just another thing that helps make this film fail in the end.
I always give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their creative decisions on a given film, especially when it comes to horror movies. They can be weird and strange at times. This film fails on all the different things Devereux tries to do to make it original and different. The sound editing, music, and cast are all wrong for this film. It's a shame because it had some potential.
Honeydew hits VOD on April 13.
Review by Sean Boelman
The thing with debut films is that it is easy to see where the filmmaker’s inexperience and bright-eyed passion are at odds with each other. Matthew Balzer makes a valiant attempt to revitalize a dead genre with his first feature The Catch, but its many shortcomings keep it from being particularly enjoyable.
The movie follows a woman who returns to her quaint New England hometown only to find herself in over her head when a crime goes awry. It’s a run-of-the-mill thriller set-up, but a lean and entertaining one at that. Unfortunately, the film clearly wants to be more than pulp, and Balzer largely fails to imbue his script with anything deeper.
This theme of a character having to decide between their small-town roots and learned city lifestyle is quite worn at this point, and that is the extent of the movie’s substance. There seems to be some additional subtext about a trauma that the protagonist experienced, but this is so underdeveloped that it has no impact.
On the other hand, the supporting characters in the film are really generic. Although most of them are likable, their arcs are very familiar, and as a result, the movie lacks a feeling of emotional resonance. Additionally, all of these subplots end up feeling like tangents rather than a supplement to the main plot.
If Balzer does succeed at one thing, it is in building an atmosphere. Granted, audiences have a set expectation for a thriller set in a sleepy Northeastern town, but the film does a solid job of building that suspense. It manages to be mostly intense despite the fact that viewers won’t be invested in the story.
That said, there is a fundamental flaw in the movie that threatens to undermine all of the suspense-building that Balzer does, and that is the cinematography. The film is way too dark to the point of leaving the audience unable to see a significant majority of the action. What makes this even more disappointing is that it wastes its lovely coastal backdrop.
There is a pretty solid cast in the movie, and they manage to make something interesting out of their roles. Katia Winter plays the protagonist in a mostly straightforward way, but is charismatic enough to drive the film forward. Bill Sage and James McMenamin both give supporting turns that are enjoyable to watch. And the extremely talented Kyle Gallner even succeeds despite being given the most underwritten character in the movie.
The Catch would be entirely watchable if it weren’t for the fact that you can barely see most of what is happening. Matthew Balzer should be applauded for trying his best, but with the resources at his disposal, this should have been a lot more.
The Catch screens at the Enzian Theater as part of the Florida Film Festival on April 12 at 6:30pm and is also available virtually for the duration of the festival. The 2021 Florida Film Festival runs April 8-22 in Orlando, FL.