Teen Spirit


Teen Spirit (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Anyone familiar with Cinderella’s story will know the precise trajectory of Max Minghella’s “Teen Spirit,” a musical drama that wants to have its cake and eat it, too. In its attempt to embody a quiet independent drama as well as a commercial piece of work, especially since the majority of the songs are pop hits (renditions of songs like Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Good Time” and Ellie Goulding’s “Bright Lights” are nothing special), its identity is lost in the process. I realize what it is trying to be, but what it is about is unclear. The reason is due to its lack of perspective: Does it wish to make a general statement about talent competitions? The many colorful personalities of contestants that one might encounter in a high-stakes contest? The cutthroat nature of the music industry? It’s all up in the air, and it’s shouldn’t be.

Elle Fanning transcends an otherwise generic picture. Whether her character, Violet, is dancing, singing, engaging in conversation with someone who doesn’t understand—and doesn’t care to understand—her passion for singing, or communicating a deep loneliness in the dark by herself, Fanning sells every single beat with every fiber of her being. It is so commendable, and it is further proof why the performer is certain to have a career decades from now. And so when the writer-director makes bizarre stylistic choices, it is incredibly frustrating. For instance, when we are in the early stages of getting to know Violet and her voice, her performance is shot like a music video: quick cuts, energetic dancers, energetic lights, overproduced music—empty.

Why not simply allow us to hear, listen to, and process the rawness of Violet’s voice? The best approach is simplicity; an act of trusting the audience of evaluating the subject’s possible star power. Because the filmmaker fails time and again early on to establish convincing reasons why Violet should and will become a superstar eventually, the character’s later performances are not as impactful; it feels as though we are watching a product rather than a real young woman with deep feelings who came from a humble background, a small village off the coast of England. In other words, Minghella neglects to give the audience strong reasons why the subject is special and therefore why her story is worth telling.

There is an intriguing but undercooked relationship right in the middle of the film which is shared by Violet and Vlad (Zlatko Buric), an aging drunk who lives in his car. Vlad used to be an opera singer and he considers Violet to be the potential he himself lost when he was at the top of his game. There is real tension in the relationship—not a combative one but a curiosity in whether the gentleman past his prime would be able to keep Violet on the right track so she is able to meet her goal of getting a record contract and get her family’s (Agnieszka Grochowska) financial situation sorted. There are sweet and effortless moments of the two of them simply talking and finding commonalities even they are so different—in looks, in personality, their definitions of success. A highlight of the film involves Vlad supporting Violet during the early rounds of Teen Spirit, an “American Idol”-esque singing competition that may lead to superstardom.

In the end, “Teen Spirit” is just another auto-tuned piece of work—glossy on the surface but it lacks heft, substance, juice. In reality, it is not enough to simply “follow one’s dreams,” as they say. There is no emphasis placed on hard work, making the right connections, sacrifices, or taking risks. We see Violet dancing, singing, meeting people, and pretending to be sick so she can skip work and go to an audition—but these remain superficial level drama.

It presents the “what” of Violet’s challenges as a green talent who knows next to nothing about showbiz but not the “how.” It doesn’t give itself a real chance to break out of the usual clichés and expectations using sharp and well-observed specificity. I felt a level of self-consciousness here. Perhaps it is because the film is Minghella’s directorial debut.

A Kid Like Jake


A Kid Like Jake (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

With a title like “A Kid Like Jake,” it is reasonable to assume that the movie will be about parents who must come to terms with their child’s nature. Specifically, it is brought to Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg’s (Jim Parsons) attention that perhaps their four-year-old son (Leo James Davis) is showing signs of being “gender-expansive.” Jake prefers to play with dolls and princess dress-ups than he does sports or superheroes. In actuality, however, the child’s sexuality or gender is not what this film is truly about. It is about parents who must deal with their own fears or concerns regarding 1) having to raise a child in a society that doesn’t really understand—or care to understand—what gender identity means, 2) their feelings of inadequacy—what they did or didn’t do, if they could have done things differently as to prevent “confusing” Jake about his gender and 3) the boy not having a spot in private school that could foster his potential. The movie is well-acted, its heart is in the right place, and it does reach a few compelling moments when characters clash while the camera is right there mere inches away from their expressive faces. We feel the unsaid words behind their eyes. But the movie lacks subtlety, even common sense at times. For instance, the couple’s state of conflict is rooted upon how they perceive their child and yet there is not one convincing moment in which a case is made that a boy preferring traditionally feminine toys or a girl preferring traditionally masculine toys does not have to mean anything at all. Maybe, just maybe, parents nowadays, especially those who come from privileged backgrounds, tend to overanalyze. When basic facts are ignored in what is supposed to be intelligent and thoughtful drama, it is a house of cards. Based on the play and adapted to the screen by Daniel Pearl. Directed by Silas Howard.

Bodied


Bodied (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

The subversive satirical comedy “Bodied” tells the story of a white and privileged UC Berkeley graduate student whose thesis involves the usage of the word “nigga” within the context of battle rap. It is energetic, propulsive, clever, and takes no prisoners. Screenwriter Alex Larsen and director Joseph Kahn are teeming with ideas—about race, gender and sexual identity, trigger warnings, fame, campus politics, political correctness—they pack them all in here—at times at the expense of creating major imbalance in storytelling. But this is the kind of risk daring filmmakers are willing to take when they are so confident that the material works. And it does. Here is a movie that hooks you all the way to the finish line.

The earnest graduate student and eventual battle rapper is named Adam. He is our protagonist but he is far from the hero of this story. Adam is smart, articulate, and adaptable—not dissimilar to a mad scientist but whose expertise is history, literature, and poetry (“humanities”—there is irony here) as opposed to science and mathematics. The character is played with terrific and alarming intensity by Calum Worthy, capable of exuding a mix of goodness and wildfire obsession to hide the fact that his character, deep down, is a scumbag. Worse, he thinks he’s a good person. There is no redemption arc to be had here—appropriate because the film’s approach to the subjects it touches upon is unapologetic. Like standout satires, this one holds a mirror on our society, points at what’s wrong, and demands that we take responsibility.

Yet the picture offers no solutions—the correct decision since it is not enjoyable to sit through a lecture in a comedy. Instead, the majority of the movie is composed of highly amusing—often laugh out loud—battle raps among personalities so colorful (Jackie Long, Jonathan Park, Shoniqua Shandai, Walter Perez), we get to know them not just in how they relate outside of the match but also how they are like when within the headspace of competition, when faced with an opponent whose goal is to humiliate and break them down. And in the age of insta-share culture, everyone not only learns of your humiliation within seconds, you get to live it over and over outside of the match. So there is plenty at stake.

At its best, the picture reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” in terms of how the camera is utilized to get in someone’s face and capture minute moments of, for example, a competitor’s defenses being broken down. Blink and you’ll miss specific jabs that really hurt even the most seemingly insurmountable Goliath. Although produced by Eminem (along with Paul Rosenberg, Adi Shankar, Jil Hardin), this is no “8 Mile.” It is another level because nothing is off the table. Insults range from physical and mental disability; homophobia; transphobia; being white, black, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, Jewish; even vegans are not safe. Every rap battle is exciting because the attitude is risk-taking—risking of offending a certain group even though there are truths—a lot of truths—in what is being communicated and lampooned.

There are moments in “Bodied” when I caught myself thinking, “They did not just cross that line,” “Did they really go there?,” “…How far will they take this?” Clearly, the work is meant to induce shock, horror, and aggressive laughter that hurts. It possesses an understanding that a satire is rendered ineffective when it takes the middle of the road. And so perceptive filmmakers play upon the extremes. Do not miss this gem; it deserves a cult following.

Time Trap


Time Trap (2017)
★ / ★★★★

To claim that “Time Trap” plays like a Syfy movie would be an insult to Syfy movies because a good number of those made-for-television projects actually try to deliver a payoff. This film, written and directed by Mark Dennis (Ben Foster co-directs), simply ends in a most rushed fashion, one might claim the filmmakers ran out of budget. But I push it a bit further: I believe those who made the picture simply do not possess a big enough imagination to be able to cap off their story in a satisfying way. So, end credits are dropped so abruptly in order to save face. To claim that “Time Trap” is a waste of time would be an insult to the phrase. Avoid this at all costs. I beg you.

The plot: An archeology professor (Andrew Wilson) discovers a mysterious hole in a desert. He goes inside and has not surfaced for two days. His students (Reiley McClendon, Brianne Howey) suspect something bad must have happened so they decide to follow suit—taking three others in their doomed rescue mission (Cassidy Gifford, Olivia Draguicevich, Max Wright). Although numerous major hints point to the idea that time is likely to work differently inside the cave, these braindead characters deny every opportunity to accept their situation. The screenplay seems stuck in its own time loop; with every repetitious scene boredom increases exponentially.

Pay close attention to the awful dialogue. There is no sense of economy. When one word is enough to express a feeling or thought, three sentences are employed instead. It does not help that the delivery is almost always flat. Maybe it would have helped if the actors were actually in a cave rather than a studio. Perhaps then they could have felt genuine emotions like fear of being lost or trapped and confusion upon the discovery that time stamps of video cameras do not match when two people get separated only for a few minutes. More than half of the scenes needed to be reshot due to an overall lack of conviction. Better yet—rewrite the screenplay completely; the expository dialogue feels like a hyperactive pugilist beating the eardrums.

Another major problem is the failure to establish rules. Just because the story is meant to be mysterious does not mean that anything can happen. If so, then why bother telling a specific story from a defined perspective? A sensible sci-fi picture that deals with the passage of time should have an anchor. In this case, for example, it should be the cave. How many minutes, hours, days, months, or years would pass if a person were to spend in a cave for one minute? The movie does not answer. It certainly would have added much-needed suspense. Assuming that we are watching the characters in real time, and we have a complete idea of the time that passes on the surface relative to the cave, tension increases the more they make mistakes, argue, or dither about.

But no. The filmmakers assume we are too stupid to be able to make the most basic mathematical conversions. Instead, we are inundated with visual effects that mean nothing, especially during its most bewildering final fifteen to twenty minutes. Here is a movie so confident with its incompetence, it sets up a possible sequel head held high. If it does happen, I hope it is released a thousand years from now because 1) I’ll be dead and would have no choice but to miss it and 2) by then absolutely no one would care.

Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th


Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Those who consider themselves to be fans of the “Friday the 13th” franchise should make it a priority to watch Daniel Farrands’ “Crystal Lake Memories,” six hours and forty minutes worth of information that touches upon every movie in the series, including the long-awaited matchup “Freddy vs. Jason” and the 2009 reboot/reimagining/Frankenstein’s monster simply called “Friday the 13th.” Despite its intimidating running time, it is highly enjoyable to sit through because actors, makeup artists, producers, writers, and directors from every installment offer insights on not only about their experiences while making specific entries—which the documentary goes through in chronological order—but also acknowledge how and why a character like Jason Voorhees, a “mere” final jump scare in the first film, became a such cultural icon.

Interviews are not only informative from a factual point of view, in a way they provide possible reasons why certain movies in the franchise ended up the way they did. For example, consider the fifth picture, “Friday the 13th: A New Beginning,” which I deem to be one of the weakest out of the twelve movies released thus far. It is a fact that when the movie was being shot, there wasn’t a proper ending written on the script. An actor had to suggest an ending. (Which made it in the final product.) In addition, those who worked in the film in front of and behind the camera acknowledge that they felt the material was sleazy, certainly atonal, and tried too hard to become something so different from what came before that the gamble did not pay off. Danny Steinmann’s personality and relatively hands-off approach in directing the movie are also taken into account. Certain things remain unsaid, but we are able to infer.

Conversely, we get to learn why “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter” and “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives” are high points for the franchise. In the former, an experienced stuntman (Ted White) was hired. He shares some of his methods on how Jason should be like in order to create a terrifying figure outside of his massive size. In the latter, there is emphasis on the loyalty of the crew, the likability of the cast and how they get along swimmingly, and that the writer-director, Tom McLoughlin, actually spent more time with the children—to ensure that their acting is top-notch when Jason breaks into their cabin—than he did analyzing how a kill should look or feel a certain way. McLoughlin actually watched the previous five movies and made notes on how to improve the movie he was about to make. The documentary offers so many nuggets worth examining and pondering over. So when a fan looks back on a specific title, the knowledge can be utilized to see the film from a different perspective.

There is no subject considered to be taboo in this doc. Even the retrospective into the much-maligned “Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday,” the ninth installment, surprised me. By having that film’s director, Adam Marcus, explain some of the decisions he took in terms of storytelling—the Jason body swapping, packing too much mythology into one film—I came out of it respecting the director who made a film I just so happen to dislike. Having him speak directly to camera, to us, shows that his intentions for the series came from a good place. It is without question he loves Jason Voorhees and the franchise. At the end of the day, it just… didn’t work. And sometimes that happens. Farrands is not afraid to place the spotlight on relevant figures and ask the tough questions.

“Crystal Lake Memories” is so informative, it goes through not only the films but also the “Friday the 13th” television series. I’m not talking about a quick two- to three-minute acknowledgment of the show. Ample time is taken to introduce the concept, how it is different from the movies, how the fans felt ripped off at the time due to the title but having no Jason, who were hired for the roles, what the actors thought about their characters looking back decades later, the show’s changing time slots, and how influential groups helped to pull the plug on the show eventually.

The thread that ties together all “Friday” movies is the pesky Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). A case can be made the MPAA did more butchering than Jason. Especially neat (and astounding) are times when we are shown a side-by-side comparison of the original cut and what the MPAA considered to be acceptable in terms of “just the right amount of violence.” Oftentimes the original cut, while considerably more gruesome, are far superior than the bastardized version.

The reason is because we get to see more craft being put into action. There is better timing between setup to a kill and final breath. The more detailed a death, the scarier, creepier, or more shocking it is. Going back to “V: A New Beginning,” for example, had that picture been less crippled by the MPAA’s preposterous and hypocritical standards, I probably wouldn’t have despised it as much (outside of the truly ugly hillbilly depictions played for laughs) because the original cuts reveal that it is not solely about money shots. Without this documentary, certain facts and realizations would be left in the dark. And that is why it is a must-see for “Friday” fans.

Freddy vs. Jason


Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
★★ / ★★★★

There is an interesting (and gratuitous) idea behind two ‘80s horror icons duking it out in “Freddy vs. Jason,” written by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, but the picture is so saddled with exposition, we do not see Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) and Jason Voorhees (Ken Kirzinger) battle one another until more than halfway through. Instead, we follow Lori (Monica Keena) cry, mope about, and act traumatized after a classmate is brutally murdered in her house during a small get-together with friends. She is a far—well, cry—from the protagonists of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th” movies. A case can even be made that not only is she less intriguing than the villains, she pales by comparison against all of her friends. More on this later.

The aforementioned curious idea is the push behind the premise. Because Freddy has been forgotten in Springwood, he is rendered powerless to kill people in their dreams. In other to regain his powers, he comes up with a plan: To resurrect Jason and send him to the suburbs to wreck havoc. Surely a murder there would trigger a chain reaction of suppressed memories so that residents would once again utter the name Freddy. And they do. But Jason isn’t the type to be used; he is, after all, an invincible walking corpse who doesn’t take kindly to insults. The screenplay does a good job in laying out a clear motivation for Freddy and Jason. When these two are on screen, together or apart, the movie comes alive.

I have seen every “Nightmare” and “Friday” picture to date, and, in terms of brutality, this film is high up on either list. Director Ronny Yu is not shy, for instance, in showing Jason take a machete and cut his victim in half. The camera remains unblinking as the upper torso separates from the lower abdomen. I cannot remember if it was also shown in slow motion—but it felt like it due to my sheer surprise. In previous “Friday” flicks, this level of gruesomeness is never shown. And then the director takes it up a notch. A few beats later, the two halves are shown on the floor completely lifeless—blood, guts, and all. It is likely to satisfy gorehounds.

But in between Jason and Freddy’s epic showdown, we follow the boring human characters. Lori is not at all compelling heroine. While Keena can cry or look tortured at a drop of a hat, Lori lacks convincing strength. So, for example, when she yells out would-be quotable badass lines toward the end of the picture, it comes off terribly fake. Keena co-stars with Jason Ritter, playing a boyfriend who had been sent to a psychiatric hospital four years ago due to something he witnessed; Kelly Rowland as Lori’s sassy best friend who wants to get a nose job; and Chris Marquette, portraying a geeky classmate who remains to have a crush on Lori even though it is blatantly obvious she has no interest in him. Ritter, Rowland, and Marquette wield such charm, at any given moment I can look at their characters and feel fire in their bellies. I failed to detect even an ember crackling in Lori. Why is she our main protagonist?

Due to the dead dull human characters—most of whom are just dead eventually—one must wonder if they are actually needed in a film like this. In terms of bloodshed between the titular characters, it works. We see Jason, while dreaming, struggle to keep up with Freddy—who is so fast, quick-thinking, and occasionally clever with puns. When the table is turned while out in the waking world, Freddy looks like a limp rag doll—or cockroach—pushing against the muscular silent boulder. Although at times apparent CGI is used, it doesn’t matter because there is joy in letting these two have at it. If only the screenplay were as enthusiastic in allowing the human characters—particularly our heroine—to shine, not just serve as fodder. Perhaps it would have been better if all of them had been killed nearly halfway through. That would have been a daring move—a first in either franchise.

Jason X


Jason X (2001)
★ / ★★★★

“Jason X” is so a product of the early 2000s, given its forced futuristic setting and nasty tendency to save a most useless, whiny character well into the latter half of the picture serving only to create more trouble for the other remaining survivors. Although this tenth entry in the “Friday the 13th” series is an improvement from the hopeless miscalculation that is “Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday,” it remains a slog to sit through. The reason is because it functions more as an action film than a horror movie. The work suffers from a serious case of repetition.

I enjoyed that writer Todd Farmer takes a risk by sending Jason (Kane Hodder) and the new group to be slaughtered into the future and in outer space. The series is begging for a massive makeover, so why not go all in? The idea isn’t as preposterous as it sounds. I argue that keeping the story in or around Crystal Lake for the umpteenth time and expecting different results is equally ludicrous. I went into it with an open mind and, to my surprise, was entertained at times.

Up until about the twenty-minute mark, there is a semblance of a possible good movie. We witness a scientist, Rowan (Lexa Doig), desperately trying to put Jason in cryostasis following another murder spree of soldiers who wish to restrain and transport him out of the facility. Dr. Wimmer (David Cronenberg) wishes to study Jason’s extraordinary ability to rapidly regenerate. One thing leads to another and Rowan and the infamous killer find themselves more than four hundred years into the future. Director Jim Isaac has the sense to show the uninhabitable earth (now called Earth 1), the massive spacecraft, the people aboard and their mission, down to how subjects are defrosted and repaired. There is even android played with a wink by Lisa Ryder.

It offers some nifty visual effects, particularly of the “ants” (nanorobots) which cover the entire body, crawl inside crevices, and fix damaged organs. The picture even has a sense of humor about itself. While not particularly sharp with its satirical angle, there are a few chuckles that result from nudging clichés that plagued ‘80s slasher flicks, including this franchise, like sexual purity essentially functioning as shield against surefire death and the trouble that comes with not making sure if the enemy is really, truly dead. A particularly brilliant exchange involves newly revived Rowan and Dr. Lowe (Jonathan Potts), professor in charge of a field trip on Earth 1.

Rowan ponders over the establishment not allowing certain “artifacts” to remain dead because there is money to be made from nostalgia. We wonder if she is only talking about “artifacts,” like herself, that can be thawed from cryostasis. But it is likely that the writer is criticizing movie franchises—like this one—chugging out one sequel after another, no matter the quality, for the sake of maintaining the brand. If “Jason X” were a better movie, this statement would have meant something.

Eventually, however, the viewers are blanketed by shootouts, people being tossed into the air only to pass out or break their necks, and the like. There is one cool death scene involving a drill followed by a joke—but this happens early on. The longer the action sequences run, the more we are reminded that perhaps it really is time for the “Friday the 13th” series to hang up the phone. There are a few interesting ideas here, but they are not fully realized—not enough to keep a ninety-minute feature afloat.