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.
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 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.
Review by Sean Boelman
Eoin Macken’s Here Are the Young Men is a relatively standard British coming-of-age tale under the guise of something more artistic. And while strong performances keep this worth watching, it exists in the uncomfortable middle ground between edgy and familiar, causing it to be too weird for general audiences but too mainstream for the art house crowd.
Based on the novel by Rob Doyle, the film follows a trio of teenagers who go down a self-destructive path the summer after finishing school when they witness a tragic accident. For a movie about teenage debauchery, this has some lofty goals, as it is less about growing up and more about coping with trauma.
However, the film’s fundamental flaw is that it tries to compress a book of more than three-hundred pages into a ninety minute movie. There are at least four arcs going on, and while the main character is pretty well-developed, that leaves three more that aren’t as fully explored as they should be.
For the most part, Macken frames the story through the eyes of a single protagonist, but there are segments in the film which cut away to perspectives exclusively held by the character’s mates. These sidebars show the more ambitious aspirations that Macken had for the movie, but are relegated to little more than an afterthought.
Much of the film explores the spiral down which the characters fall due to their inability to process their emotions, and it’s a dark but stirring depiction. The movie does fumble some of the plot elements, like a scene in the final act involving the protagonist’s girlfriend and best friend, but for the most part, it’s a surprisingly subtle discussion of its themes.
The acting of the film is also a highlight. Dean-Charles Chapman starts out as charming as ever before peeling back layer after layer on his character over the course of the movie. By the time the credits roll, he does a good job of showing how his character has devolved into a shell of himself. In the supporting cast, Anya Taylor-Joy and Finn Cole are the standouts, although there is no real weak link.
Macken’s directorial style is much less consistent. On one hand, the party sequences are shot quite well in a way that emphasizes the disturbing nature of the situation rather than the fun that they should be, but then there are dream sequences that aren’t fully fleshed out. Stylistically, it feels like Macken threw a lot of ideas to the wall to see what sticks, and some of them didn‘t work.
Here Are the Young Men doesn’t fully live up to its potential, but the strong cast makes the most out of a script that feels somewhat underwritten. Ultimately, filmmaker Eoin Macken is trying to do too much in a short runtime, and as a result, it feels overly busy.
Here Are the Young Men hits VOD on April 27.
Review by Sean Boelman
Charléne Favier’s Slalom is a highly topical film, dealing with an issue that hasn’t been discussed in cinema very often before. And while this is a discussion that really needs to happen, Favier’s approach isn’t the most consistent or tender, making this a better starting point than a conversation in and of itself.
The film follows a promising teenage girl who is taken under the wing of her strict coach to train to become a top skier, only to form a deeper and more problematic relationship with him. There is an undeniable level of realism to Favier’s script, as there are unfortunately stories like this in the news all the time, but it’s set against a conventional coming-of-age background.
Without a doubt, the biggest strength of this movie is what it has to say about grooming and sexual predation. However, framing this in the context of a sports coming-of-age story is somewhat questionable. Granted, this does happen to young women in the sports world, but the film presents it in an analog to a rite of passage. The message here is obvious, but not conveyed in the most effective way.
The pacing of the movie is interesting, drawing the viewer into the protagonist’s world of intense training. Her exercises are shot in a very static and almost monotonous way to make the audience feel the nature of the character’s routine. However, the film never crosses over into tedium, these prolonged shots instead having a somewhat hypnotic feel to them.
That said, one of the areas in which Favier’s script could have used some improvement is the character development. The movie leans a little too heavily on the audience’s pity for the protagonist as a victim, and while this does have the intended emotional effect, it would have been nice to see the character given more depth outside of her aspirations and victimhood.
For the most part, Favier uses a very simple shooting style, instead emphasizing the power of the performances and script. The use of color in the film is beautiful and creates some interesting (if straightforward) symbolism. Of course, there are some very pretty shots of the mountains down which the characters are skiing, but the actors are the stars of the show.
Young actress Noée Abita gives a nuanced and subtle performance as the lead. It’s a challenging role that easily could have pushed the movie into melodramatic territory with a bad turn, but Abita dials into the more minute details of the script. Jérémie Renier is also excellent and fittingly disturbing as the predatory coach.
Slalom is an interesting film, and while its approach isn’t always the most effective, the message is one that needs to be heard by audiences. Hopefully this will open the door to a more open discussion about these issues.
Slalom hits virtual cinemas on April 9. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Review by Sean Boelman
High-concept, socially-conscious horror often leads to some of the most successful examples of the genre — just look at the massive hit that was Get Out — but a filmmaker has to know what they are doing in order to pull it off. Unfortunately for Held, the script reveals its hand too late, resulting in a message that gets muddled behind an otherwise subpar thriller.
The film follows a couple whose marriage is tested when they get held hostage by an unseen voice giving them increasingly sinister commands. Like a mix of a home invasion thriller and torture porn horror, the movie fails to bring to the table the suspense or extreme gore that makes those respective genres tick, causing the first half of the film to struggle.
When the movie reaches its big twist around the midway point, it becomes something much more interesting. However, this change comes too little too late, a metaphorical cup of originality to compensate for the wildfire of mediocrity that came before it. Had there been more suspense building up to this big reveal, it definitely could have been more effective.
It becomes abundantly clear in the final act of the film there is a feminist and anti-patriarchal message, and while this is undeniably well-intentioned, it is executed poorly. The script by Jill Awbrey isn’t able to find that perfect balance between realism and excess to make the satire effective.
Additionally, the character development in the movie is lacking. Much of the first half of the film is spent trying to get the audience to care about the relationship between the two characters, and it doesn’t succeed. At the bare minimum, we should at least be able to get fully behind the female protagonist, and that isn’t even the case.
Awbrey also plays the lead in the movie in addition to her duties as a writer, and her turn is entirely unexceptional. It is a very reactive performance, something which doesn’t seem fit to the material, particularly during the second half. Bart Johnson is slightly better, although no more believable, as her husband.
The film also leaves something to be desired visually. There are some cool images in the final act tied to world-building, but for a majority of the movie, there isn’t much of a world to build. As such, it’s a rather plain thriller set in a sleek house, and viewers will be left waiting for something gnarly that doesn’t come.
Held has a lot of potential, but the filmmakers are unable to salvage the great concept from a poorly-developed screenplay. As a result, this ends up in the B-movie pile rather than the art house where it should belong.
Held hits theaters and VOD on April 9.
Review by Sean Boelman
Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro made waves when it came out five years ago, and the filmmaker’s newest work, Exterminate All the Brutes is just as thought-provoking. A fascinating, if somewhat messy, exploration of the history of racism in America and the world, there is no denying that this is a necessary addition to the discussion.
Based on the eponymous book by Sven Lindqvist, with additional inspiration from An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Silencing the Past: The Power and Production of History, the filmmaker’s personal experiences, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Peck’s documentary series offers a wide-spanning chronicle of colonialism and its inherent ties to racism.
The historical analysis that Peck offers of these atrocities committed against minorities across the world and throughout time is quite good, but what is perhaps more interesting is the way in which he compares the past to incidents of systemic oppression in the modern day. There is a lot of juxtaposition used throughout the series, and this is quite effective at making the message feel harrowingly relevant.
The series is four episodes long at an hour each, and yet it feels like Peck still had more to say. Each episode is centered around a particular theme, and Peck traverses the world and history in his arguments. The result somehow feels both deliberate and disorganized, like a passionate but reasonable diatribe on an institution that needs to be torn down.
There is a certain poeticism to Peck’s writing that will work for some but may be a bit too much for others. It’s a combination of the artistic sources from which he drew inspiration for the material and his own strong voice, and it’s an undeniably distinctive approach to exposing the truth behind a history that has been whitewashed and glorified.
A significant portion of the show is a series of reenactments starring Josh Hartnett as a series of white supremacists through the years. Many of these scenes are horrifying, effectively showing the terror exacted on people of color by those in power in ways that archival footage couldn’t impact the viewer, but they often drag the pacing to a halt.
That said, Peck’s use of a combination of archive footage, animation, and his own narration works really well in telling this story. Peck is clearly very well-versed as a filmmaker in argumentation, structuring his thesis in a way that serves to deliver and reinforce his point in an effective way.
Exterminate All the Brutes is an eye-opening look at a part of history to which society too often turns a blind eye. Although the structure is imperfect, that is also part of what makes it so compelling as it is indicative of Peck’s passion towards the topic.
Exterminate All the Brutes airs on HBO on April 7 and 8 at 9pm ET/PT.
Review by Sean Boelman
There are a lot of films about Apartheid, and one has to wonder if the white perspective is the one that is the most important one to be heard. And while the movie does ignore the racial conflict that is central to the story, Oliver Hermanus’s Moffie still manages to be very compelling for what it is.
The film tells the story of a young gay man in Apartheid-era South Africa who struggles to hide his sexuality during his two years of compulsory military service. At times, it seems as if it is going to head down the white apologist path, exploring how a white man comes to terms with racism being bad, but for better or worse, the movie ends up basically ignoring Apartheid altogether.
It’s definitely off-putting to see a film about Apartheid that doesn’t really care about the Black South Africans who were the victims of some of the worst institutional discrimination of all time. As a movie about LGBTQ issues, Hermanus’s drama is very compelling, but it certainly feels like something is missing.
Admittedly, much of the drama that makes up the conflict of the film has been done before. There are a lot of movies about gay men in the service having to face the homophobia and toxic masculinity that largely defines the military, especially in those times. That said, the way in which it is depicted in this movie is still harrowing.
Yet even though the film is mostly conventional and fails to acknowledge the more important aspects of the situation, the brilliant character work by Hermanus and co-writer Jack Sidey really puts the movie above and beyond. Viewers will have no trouble connecting to the character and his struggle.
Kai Luke Brummer’s lead performance is very strong. For his first major role, he manages to bring a lot of empathy and nuance to the character. Even when the film falls back on slightly more melodramatic tendencies, Brummer’s performance feels completely natural and believable.
In a visual sense, Hermanus does a good job of periodizing the movie. The main purpose here seems to be to capture the horrors that the protagonist is experiencing in a way that is engaging and harrowing. Because of this, much of Jamie Ramsay’s cinematography is done in a way that is dark and atmospheric.
Moffie may not be a groundbreaking film in terms of Apartheid dramas, but it is a solidly-made one nevertheless. Even though it doesn’t have the much-needed racial commentary, it’s a lot better than other historical dramas.
Moffie hits theaters and VOD on April 9.