Posts Tagged ‘Hiram Ortiz’

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.

 

 

 

Hey, it wouldn’t be a Halloween on Amazon Prime without a new film from our guy Ryan Callaway to check out, would it?

Of course not, and just the other day his latest popped up on there — Messenger Of Wrath, which “wrapped” production just a few short weeks ago and marks something of a departure in the veteran micro-budget auteur‘s output in that it’s the first time, at least to my knowledge, that he’s delved into the burgeoning “home invasion” sub-genre, but fear not : as with all things Callaway (or maybe that should be Callaways, given that his wife, Amy, produces all these flicks — this being no exception), there’s a twist here to set it apart from its competitors/contemporaries. But it’s not one that I’m going to give away in case you decide to watch this movie, so rest easy on that score — we’re keeping things (relatively) “spoiler-free” for purposes of this review.

Genre branch-out aside, however, this is still, in many ways, a “typical” Callaway film in that it was produced on a shoestring budget, filmed in New Jersey, has a lengthy (some would argue padded) runtime, is populated by a cast of regulars (specifically Madeline Lupi, Melissa Malone, Hiram Ortiz, Brittini Schreiber, Hayley Wayne, and Isabella Mays — to name only those I recognized off the top of my head), and features strong and independent women or girls in most of the lead roles. It’s also essentially bereft of gore, nudity, and even (for the most part) cursing, so it’s not one you’re probably gonna want to watch over a few beers with your friends.

If you’re still willing to give it a whirl even bearing in mind all those caveats, however, what you’ll find is a relatively tense and well-executed psychological thriller with reasonably compelling characterization, smart (if plentiful) dialogue — and, in this case, some pretty good acting, as well. Surely we can forgive its lack of entrails and viscera, then, can’t we?

The set-up here is deceptively simple : precocious 12-year-old girl Three Ballentine (played by Lupi, who really shines in this featured turn) is left home alone one evening when her usually-quiet exurban residence is set upon by a gang of masked intruders.  Her internal “survival mode” switch kicks in pretty quickly and she proves to be rather ingenious at evading and/or thwarting her would-be kidnappers/assailants, but here’s where the twist comes in, and it’s one that dovetails with prior Callaway efforts, so I’ll keep things suitably oblique : when the chase moves outdoors, both Three and her pursuers discover that they have a much bigger problem to worry about, and it’s one that potentially threatens all of them and doesn’t really discriminate between “good guys”and “bad” —

My one semi-major gripe here is that this film probably would have benefited from having 20-30 minutes excised from it, which would have resulted in a more brisk and terse affair fraught with a bit more tension, but Callaway has always been one to give his stories (and his characters) plenty of “breathing room,” and I don’t foresee that changing anytime in the near future. Aside from that, though, problems are really quite few and far between, and Messenger Of Wrath may indeed be the most well-executed example of the whole “Callaway Ethos” to date. A very well-done flick from one of the micro-budget scene’s most prolific — and interesting — filmmakers.

 

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If it seems like we’re turning into an unofficial PR arm for Ryan Callaway and his “micro-budget” film production outfit, Shady Dawn Pictures, around this place, rest assured that we’re (or, rather, I’m) not, but when Callaway took notice of my reviews of a couple of his previous efforts and found them to be fair-minded appraisals of his work, he hooked my up with a digital “screener” for his latest (the first film with a 2017 release date reviewed for this site), Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2, which will be available via any number of so-called “home viewing platforms” later this month (hopefully he’ll drop by the comments section here with more specific details when he knows them). Now, I get folks sending me their “homemade horrors” all the time, and I generally do watch them — or start to, at any rate, as in all honesty they’re not always worth finishing — but I always feel a bit nervous about reviewing them. By and large these truly independent efforts represent someone sinking their life savings (however meager it may be) into a project, and are therefore genuine “labors of love,” so I play it a bit differently than I do with a Hollywood flick : if I like it, I’ll review it, but if I don’t  like it, or have a mixed opinion on it, I’ll refrain from trashing the film in public and simply pass on my thoughts privately to the director. Sometimes I make an exception if the flick in question is so bad that I think its would-be auteur needs to be told in no uncertain terms to give it up and find something else to do with his or her life, but that’s only happened a few times over the years, as it’s truly rare to find something with absolutely nothing going for it on any level. All of which is my way of saying, if you get ahold of me on twitter or via email to set me up with a “screener,” know that these are my “house rules” going in. Callaway, however, made it clear that he welcomed my review of his new project, regardless of whether the final verdict was good, bad, or somewhere in-between, so hey — credit where it’s due, the guy is willing to let his work stand or fall on its own merits.

And, truth be told, Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2 actually does have plenty of merit in its favor. The film is well-shot, generally well-acted, and has a more polished and professional look than many flicks with a similar budget (which I believe in this case was around $40,000, if I remember correctly). It also has some “knocks”going against it, as well, but we’ll get to all that in short order. If you’re even passingly familiar with the world of “micro-budget” horror filmmaking you know that none of these things are anything like a “perfect” movie simply because — well, shit, they can’t afford to be. The key, then, is to judge ’em all on, frankly, a fair generous curve that acknowledges their potential and balances that reasonably equally with their execution. Flaws are to be expected, but if they’re too glaring — or, worse yet, if they actively hinder your ability to suspend your disbelief and literally “take you out of the movie” — well, then you’ve gotta call ’em out on it. My time may be for sale — on the cheap, some would argue — but my conscience? I like to think there’s no price tag attached to that. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

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Our story this time out is largely focused on the “sole survivor” of the previously-reviewed-around-these-parts (and available for free on Amazon Prime) first film, Tiffany (played by Madeline Lupi), who lost her older sister after a particularly harrowing series of encounters with the titular girl in the cornfield herself (Mollie Sperduto), and is looking to place her loss into some sort of context by tracking down anyone else who may have crossed paths with this reasonably ethereal presence. Enter — after a bit — one Adelaide Russo (Michelle Lulic) and her sister, Abigail (Alex Santoleri), whose family is apparently being “spirit-stalked” in a similar manner, and who could use a little help from the closest thing to an “expert” on these matters there is before they all end up meeting an untimely fate themselves. Again, as you’ve no doubt been able to discern, we’ve got a largely-female cast here, with the patriarch of the Russo clan, Jack (Hiram Ortiz), being the most notable male figure among the principles involved — but even he plays a very secondary fiddle to the ladies here. And, it must be said, most of ’em show a reasonable-enough handle on “Acting 101” basics despite more than likely having no formal training in the field. There are some rough patches, sure, but nothing anyone needs to be overly-embarrassed about, and a few of these folks — particularly Lupi — might have a chance at that ever-elusive “future in the business” if they really dig in and learn to both expand and apply their craft.

That statement is also true of our writer/director and his production partner/wife, Amy. They seem to be making a decent enough go of it with their New Jersey-based efforts, and are having better luck than many when it comes to hustling up financing, but you’ve gotta think that they’re chasing for a bigger break somewhere down the line. I don’t know how many people watch your average Shady Dawn production, but I’m thinking that it probably numbers in the low-thousands, and no matter how much you might love making art for its own sake, the simple truth is that you’re not gonna keep doing that forever when there are bills to pay and mouths to feed. I don’t know if the Callaways entertain dreams of taking their act to Tinseltown or if they harbor more modest aims such as making a go of it doing local commercials or corporate promotional and/or training films or whatever in Jersey, but they’re clearly trying to show that they can “do more” with films such as this one, which tells a rather sprawling and expansive story (with an equally large cast) and clocks in at damn near two and a half hours in length. That’s definitely ambitious — but in this case it’s also slightly problematic.

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We all love character development and the like, but if there’s one thing Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2 suffers from, it’s putting us a bit too deeply inside the day-today lives of any number of its characters and taking some of the focus away from the central threat as it fleshes out almost everything else it can about almost everybody concerned. I respect the fact that our “other Ryan C.” has some serious themes and issues he wants to try to tackle here and that he’s doing his level best to show that you don’t need a ton of money to tell a “big” story. He’s living proof that imagination trumps resources and that character-driven horror trumps cheaper and more plentiful scares. The “slow burn” is great — and I welcome more of it in genre cinema — but you have to be careful lest it fizzles out entirely. I’m pleased to say it doesn’t here, but that’s largely due to a generally-satisfying and smartly-structured “third act” that pulls you back into the proceedings after the lengthy “middle act” nearly loses you. A tighter, “leaner and meaner” script, then, might be something worth striving for next time around.

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On a purely technical level, there’s plenty to admire here, as Callaway serves up some impressively-staged shots and continues to develop his visual storytelling skills, showing a far greater command this time out as far as lighting, blocking, and other vital aspects of the director’s “toolkit” are concerned. But if there’s going to be a Girl In The Cornfield 3 — a possibility that’s definitely left open by the “resolution” to this one — paring down the scope of the production may not be such a bad idea. I realize that sounds kinda strange when you’re talking about a super-low-budget flick, but there’s something to be said for doing less and doing it all well rather than doing too much for too long. Ryan Callaway has shown here that he’s not afraid to extend his reach beyond what circumstances dictate he “should” be able to do, and for that he deserves much credit — but now that we know how many things he can do reasonably well, I’d like to see him “zero in” on what he thinks he could be well and truly great at and craft a script that plays to his genuine strengths, rather than one that simply showcases his many abilities.