Posts Tagged ‘Breanna Engle’

One thing no one can doubt for a minute : Ryan Callaway is a busy guy. Most years see him putting or two or three films, and here in 2019 he’s releasing his hour-long “short,” The Ghost In The Darkness, as well as the full-length effort under review here, One Winter Night, more or less simultaneously. Not even fellow New Jersey microbudgeter Nigel Bach can match that pace, and he doesn’t have anywhere near Callaway’s cast sizes and production complexities, given that he’s essentially cranking out everything from within the confines of his own home, and with himself as his only “star.”

Still, work ethic is one thing, actual ability something else entirely, and just because Callaway can pull off the seemingly impossible on a consistent basis doesn’t mean he always should. I got early access to this flick (which should be available for streaming on Amazon Prime soon enough) from “the other Ryan C.” essentially, I think, because I’ve been more than willing to point out both the strengths and flaws of his prior productions, and in many respects the “plus” and “minus” columns recorded in the ledger for this one are populated by the same check marks — but those checks on the “minus” side are being scratched in with less fervor and gusto on my part as this Shyamalan-without-the-money continues to hone and improve his craft over time.

As proof of this evolution, I offer the fact that, despite this film’s typical-for-Callaway sprawling ensemble of players and lengthy runtime, the basic plot on offer is pretty simple, revolving as it does around an Orthodox Jewish mother named Leah Bloomfield (played by Callaway vet Brittini Schreiber) and her daughters Maya (Breanna Engle) and Esther (Ariella Mossey) coming into conflict with quasi-cabbalistic (at least as far as I understand it) demonic forces that are preying on a somewhat-isolated rural community for reasons that may or may not (hey, that’d be telling) be tied in with their own family history. It’s a compelling central premise, almost elegant in its “bare-bones” basics, and despite incorporating a number of other personages into the proceedings, Callaway never takes his eye off the metaphorical engine that’s propelling this equally-metaphorical bus forward — something that he’s not always been so successful at doing in times past.

Also worthy of note is Callaway’s facility in coaxing pretty decent performances out of his actors. Yeah, there’s still some unevenness to be had here, but he’s worked with most of these folks before (Shreiber, Engle, new-ish regular Genevieve Tarrant, and the ubiquitous Hiram Ortiz) and has a clearly comfortable rapport with them, as well as with newcomer Isabelle Zufferey Boulton, who plays a key supporting character named Naira. What’s worthy of special note, though, is the strong work turned in on this film by a number of youthful performers — most specifically Mossey and Cadence Ellissa — and while getting even reasonably believable work out of kids is pretty tough, in this flick we get it fairly consistently, and I’m of a mind that the director should get at least some of the credit for that.

Still, it’s not all roses and probably never could be — we’re talking about a production of limited means here, after all. There are some curiously-composed shots that seem to be aiming for something artistic but don’t quite hit the mark, some of the most crucial dialogue veers into the overly-expository, and certain sequences of events play out in somewhat disjointed fashion when more smooth transitions from A to B are pretty easily discernible. A lot of this is certainly down to limited resources — “we’ve gotta do this scene in this fashion instead of that for this reason,” etc. — but these kinds of “needs must” scenarios are, in fairness, frequently less discernible in productions financially comparable to this one.

But ya know what? There are any number of filmmakers with more at their disposal than Callaway, but who do far less with what they’ye got. One Winter Night may not be perfect, even by micro-budget standards, but it does mark yet another significant step forward for one of the most interesting and distinctive auteurs in the world of “homemade horror” today.

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It’s always a little bit tricky doing an advance review of a film that hasn’t been released yet — yeah, okay, this isn’t my first time doing it, but it’s been awhile — but when a quick Google search lets you know that your appraisal will be the first posted anywhere? Then you’re playing with fire, at least to a certain extent. I mean, a lot’s going to hinge on what you have to say — hell, in a very real sense, the success or failure of the flick in question rests at least partially on your shoulders.

You’ve got some real freedom, though, too — no one can say other opinions influenced yours, no one can accuse you of being part of an “echo chamber,” no one can point out similarities between what you’ve written and what someone else has. Not that anyone’s ever said that about my stuff, mind you —

Okay, that’s a bit more preamble than you normally might be expecting, granted, but I think a certain amount of context here is important because now’s when we get into the “full disclosure” part of the proceedings : old friend of this site, New Jersey micro-budget maestro Ryan Callaway, reached out to me looking for a review for his latest, Let’s Not Meet, sent me a (somewhat unfinished, but pretty close) “screener,” and asked if I could have it ready in advance of its Amazon Prime VOD “street date” of September 30th (well, its free “street date” — I believe it’s available on Amazon for purchase already, it’s out on DVD, and it screened in some East Coast theaters back on August 31st). I told him sure, but not simply because I think Callaway’s a cool guy — more because he’s a fair one. I haven’t been entirely kind to some of his earlier productions, but it’s not like I told him to give up on the whole “movie thing” and see if his local Wal-Mart is hiring. I’ve pointed out what he’s done well, what he’s done less than well, where I think his lack of resources hindered him, and where the “low-fi” aesthetic he’s necessarily forced to adhere to has actually been beneficial. He’s been magnanimous about accepting every piece of constructive criticism, and (if I may be so bold) it even appears that he’s even taken some of my suggestions to heart, all of which is to say —

Let’s Not Meet is probably his best film to date. It’s not perfect — circumstances almost flat-out dictate that it can’t be — but it’s pretty damn good, it’s well worth your time, and now comes the part where I tell you why —

As is the case with most of Callaway’s Shady Dawn Productions features (this time Callaway is in his usual role of writer/director, while his producers are wife Amy and Sabine Davids), this one has a sprawling, ensemble cast, but the focus starts out tight and moves outward from there  : pizza delivery woman Aya Becker (played with considerable aplomb by Breanna Engle) is making her final stop of the night when she wises up to the fact that whoever owns the house she’s just entered (don’t worry, there’s a note by the doorbell, no “B and E” going on here) is attempting to lure her into some sort of trap. She’s nothing if not resourceful and quick on her feet, though, so making her escape isn’t too big a problem — but once she skedaddles, that’s when the real intrigue begins, as she encounters a group of campers who are in the midst of a terrifying and rather mysterious ordeal of their own. How are these events connected? Who, exactly, is everyone fleeing from? How are they going to make it out alive? And what’s all this got to do with a dead Satanic cult leader? As this is, again, an advance review (okay, of sorts), I’m going to studiously avoid anything that even steps the tiniest of toes into “spoiler” territory, but that doesn’t prevent me from opining in a general sense, does it? Not in the least —

As I said, the cast eventually expands out to more traditional “Callaway size,” but his actors are generally all bringing their “A” game for this one, whether we’re talking about Shady Dawn veterans like Hiram Ortiz, Ken Llamas, Tiffany Browne-Ortiz, and Carmine Giordano, or first-timers such as Georgette Vaillancourt, Kate Kenney, Millie Ortiz, or the aforementioned Engle. Not everyone is a professional, that much is obvious, but everybody punches above their weight class, and certainly no one comes off as “cardboard,” much less cringe-worthy. Those of us who know the micro-budget world pretty well know just how rare that is — especially when there are this many performers on hand.

If you believe as I do that representation matters, especially in the formerly all-white world of genre cinema, Callaway is a welcome breath of fresh air in that he always puts together diverse ensembles of actors, and women are usally the primary movers-and-shakers in his scripts, all of which is true here, but he’s thankfully toned down his author’s urge to give them all hyper-detailed backstories and instead puts just enough “meat” on their narrative “bones” to make their motivations seem sincere and their actions “in character.” He goes a bit overboard here and there on the extended dialogue scenes, and as a result the film is a little bit longer than it needs to be, but it’s not padded out by 30 or 40 wholly unnecessary minutes, as some of his past productions have been. In other words — he’s learning what works and what doesn’t as he goes along, and his increasing confidence as a filmmaker is showing in other ways, as well, with more strong shot compositions, better timing of key story “beats,” etc.

Best of all, though, this flick is just plain fun. It’s reasonably suspenseful, sure, but it doesn’t take itself too terribly seriously all the time, it doesn’t push against the boundaries of its limitations, and it never tries to pretend it’s something other, or greater, than it is. All of which is to say, Callaway and his cohorts clearly set out to make a solidly-executed little tongue-in-cheek horror/ thriller amalgamation here  — and that’s exactly what Let’s Not Meet is.