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Franz Patrick

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning


Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)
★ / ★★★★

I counted. It took fifteen kills until a victim is given a chance to run for her life. Up until this moment, by then the movie is an hour deep into its interminable running time of ninety minutes, every single kill involves a person getting hit once and he or she drops dead almost immediately. No suspense, no thrills. Just an exercise of violence. Stab. It is ugly and boring, not at all a worthy follow-up to its inspired direct predecessor. “Friday the 13th: A New Beginning,” the fifth in the series, based on the screenplay by Martin Kitrosser, David Cohen, and Danny Steinmann (who also directs), is without redemption. It is—without question—the worst entry so far.

We follow one of the survivors in “The Final Chapter,” Tommy Jarvis, now a teenager (John Shepherd), who is sent to Pinehurst Youth Development Center, led by Dr. Matthew Letter (Richard Young), so that he can undergo further healing from severe trauma, prepare to re-enter society, and start life anew. Although Tommy is the central protagonist, no thought or insight is put into how the character is written. His evolution is non-existent and so when the picture goes for a last-minute twist—which is completely predictable—it is most unconvincing. I would like to know how much the writers got paid to helm the screenplay and demand, if they kept the check, that the money be donated to the poor—with interest. Because they did no work. The final product is an amalgamation of the worst elements of horror films within and outside of this series. This movie’s existence is an act of spitting upon the fans of the series with impunity.

We are provided no detail regarding Pinehurst and how the halfway house works. This is supposed to be where a massacre will take place later on, but the filmmakers could not be bothered to establish a realistic, creepy, or foreboding atmosphere. Not once did a scene not look like it had been shot on a set. Nearly everything comes across as fake: the decor, the plates and the dinner table, down to the bunkbeds. These objects appear as though they have not been used once. And we are supposed to believe that this is an established halfway house? The movie expects the viewers to be dumb and blind.

Furthermore, other than Tommy, I found it impossible to remember any of the residents’ names. And so I assigned them nicknames—a few of them not-so-nice because the clichés come hard and fast. The reason is because a person is gutted before an interesting fact or specific trait about him or her surfaces. To add insult to injury, the kills are not inspired… or even framed correctly. The approach is almost always a close-up of the weapon piercing the body. Showing blood does not magically generate horror. You have to work at it. Those in charge from behind the camera have no understanding of this. Cue the badly edited reaction shots.

This degenerate of a film contains some of the most offensive representation of rednecks I have ever seen in the movies. I understand that the intention is to generate humor, but the jokes, I felt, came from a mean-spirited perspective. It shows rednecks as constantly obnoxious, dimwitted, and dirty. That they talk like wild animals. That they live like pigs. That they essentially eat pig slop, too. I couldn’t believe that in the mid-80s, this sort of stereotype was still considered to be acceptable. I found zero entertainment value from this sequel.

I hope “A New Beginning” is the bottom of the barrel. How can it get worse?

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter


Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
★★★ / ★★★★

There is no typical final girl in the third sequel of the “Friday the 13th” franchise, “The Final Chapter.” Based on the screenplay by Barney Cohen, it is the most inspired one of the lot thus far, surpassing even the original in my eyes, because it is able to recognize patterns (read: cliché) that plagued its predecessors and manages to add some nifty twists to them. Much darker in tone and atmosphere than “Friday the 13th Part III,” which had potential because, like this film, it attempted to break away from the formula of the plot focusing on camp counselors gathering in or around Camp Crystal Lake, home of Jason Voorhees (Ted White), all to be slaughtered by the end of the movie—except for one.

This time, the story picks up right from the bloody aftermath of “Part III.” Jason is supposedly dead, but he springs to life while at the hospital, killing a nurse and a coroner. We get back to Crystal Lake… but the interest lies not in the group of teenagers who move to a cabin for the weekend. Instead, we meet Tommy and Trish Jarvis (Corey Feldman, Kimberly Beck), as well as their mother who loves to jog (Joan Freeman), a family still recovering from a divorce. (We also meet the dog Gordon.) Remove this family completely from the picture and it is interesting that what remains is a reproduction of the first two films. Perhaps that is the point: To tie up the first four moves in such a way that there is at least a semblance of cohesion.

As expected, we get the usual slicing and dicing, sharp objects piercing through the abdomen, post-coital blood spattering. There is even a creative use of a corkscrew. Half of the teenagers are standouts, for better or worse. Most memorable is Crispin Glover as Jimmy/“Jimbo,” the socially awkward one who is a bit sad for being turned down by a girl right before their trip. His dance moves must be seen to be believed. Another memorable actor is Lawrence Monoson who plays Ted the clown. I found him to be especially annoying because, unlike Shelly (also a clown) from “Part III,” Ted is not given any interesting dimension. With Shelly, he is written to be a lonely clown—it is clear he just wanted a friend. Ted, on the other hand, is just obnoxious. At one point I wished for Jason to appear when Ted was alone in a dark room just so there wouldn’t be any more scenes of him that I’d have to endure.

What elevates this slasher film is not the kills but the approach. We get the usual in-your-face violence. But there also times when we simply see shadows of Jason impaling his victim while out in the rain. Occasionally scenes end abruptly as the victim is in the process of dying—as if to communicate that the point has been delivered and so it is time to move on to next rising action culminating in another brutal killing. The fact that it doesn’t linger communicates a certain confidence, that it has a lot more to show. “The Final Chapter” is the most fast-paced installment so far. I think it is because the filmmakers are excited to show their ideas.

Make-up artist Tom Savini is back for “The Final Chapter,” and it shows. There is beauty to the broken limbs, deep cuts, and open wounds gushing blood. I wanted to study certain frames just a bit longer. But I think I enjoyed it most because director Joseph Zito is actually interested in showing deeper characterization compared to the other pictures. We observe Trish’s maturity as the elder sister; Tommy takes us up to his room to show off his hobby: making monster masks and props. And so when it is time for them to face the seemingly unstoppable Jason, we wish for them to get away not for the sake of having survivors but because we want their stories, their lives, to go on. “The Final Chapter” is a step in the right direction.

Friday the 13th Part III


Friday the 13th Part III (1982)
★ / ★★★★

It is funny that although “Friday the 13th Part III” has a similar running time to its predecessors, it feels much longer than either of them. Funnier still is the fact that I found potential in this picture, particularly the first half, because gone is the usual formula involving camp counselors gathering in or around Camp Crystal Lake. Instead, we follow a group of friends spending the weekend at Higgins Haven, once a home to Chris (Dana Kimmell) who left two years prior due to an incident while she was out in the woods after a row with her parents. But the second half is such a drag, not even Jason Voorhees (Richard Brooker) finally wearing his notorious hockey mask is able to save it.

Like the first sequel, I enjoyed this group of sheep to be slaughtered so I wanted to know more about them. Every one of them is good-hearted in their own way—yes, even the clown, Shelly (Larry Zerner), who pretends to be seriously injured or dead using elaborate toys or cosmetics for attention—but not one of these surface personalities reveals something new, odd, or surprising. In the previous movies, at least one, usually the final girl, is shown to have another dimension to her. Here, not even the last survivor is or becomes mildly curious. As easy as it is to point to the subpar acting across the board, the problem lies in the unimaginative and unambitious screenplay by Martin Kitrosser and Carol Watson.

The first thirty to forty-five minutes promises humor. For instance, we meet a biker trio (Nick Savage, Kevin O’Brien, Gloria Charles) when Shelly and Vera (Catherine Parks) run into them at a convenience store. Although there is a threat of violence, clearly the gang is meant to be cheeky more than frightening. It feels like they are ripped right off midnight exploitation pictures. Even two of Chris’ friends are potheads (David Katims, Rachel Howard). Again, instead of using these personalities to provide moments of levity in between gasps of horror, the writers do nothing interesting with them. We know they’re bound to get killed, so why not have some fun along the way? Finally, listen closely to some of the dialogue. They sound pornographic. So you’d think that the sex scenes would be steamy. But alas.

Setup to the kills are a bit more polished this time around. However, this comes at a cost. For instance, given that Jason has begun to wear a hockey mask, there are a lot more shots in which we see him from head to toe. In the previous sequel and the original, either we take the over-the-shoulder perspective of the killer or the killer’s body from the chest up is hidden using shadows or other objects for about half the picture. Due to the limitation, there is more opportunity to create interesting shots. The level of suspense may not be high, but at least the angles from which we absorb the action are curious some of the time. Thus, due to the newfound freedom of showing Jason’s entire body, this film feels more like today’s slasher movies.

“Friday the 13th Part III,” directed by Steve Miner, is not unwatchable, but it is clearly inferior to its predecessors. I admired the small changes—such as the shift from camp counselors to a group of friends and the more humorous tone—because it shows that attempts are made to keep things a bit fresh. But the changes must be supported by good reasons. Because why make changes when these are not going to be utilized in such a way to elevate the entire work?

Friday the 13th Part 2


Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
★★ / ★★★★

“Friday the 13th: Part II” might have had the chance to surpass the original had screenwriter Ron Kurz decided to take on a more psychological approach alongside repeating the mad spatterfest of the original. There is a character in this sequel, Ginny (Amy Steel), assistant to the lead camp counselor Paul (John Furey), who has a background in child psychology. What better heroine to pit against a serial killer with serious mommy issues than someone who can offer insight on how a deranged mind works? But the movie is not interested in psychology, just cheap thrills. While entertaining in parts, nearly nothing of importance unfolds in the first hour. (The recap of the first movie during the first ten minutes is downright awful.) That’s a lot to ask for a slasher film in which creative kills, gore, and body count matter.

This group of counselors is slightly more entertaining than in the original. Individually, they do not receive the same amount screen time as their predecessors, but they are memorable enough because the writing’s approach to humor is more overt. Some examples: the tow truck, a recurring gag involving a dog named Muffin, Vickie (Lauren-Marie Taylor) constantly throwing herself on wheelchair-bound Mark (Tom McBride) who seems more interested in arm wrestling other guys. There is even a couple from the city who wish to visit Camp Crystal Lake, also known as Camp Blood, because it is infamous for the murders that occurred there five years prior—the massacre in the first film. This time around, the story takes place in Packanack Lodge, a short walk away from Camp Crystal Lake.

Speaking of the first picture, sole survivor Alice (Adrienne King) makes an appearance. It is interesting that she is brought back not because of what is to be done with the character—which is predictable—but seeing her is a good reminder that Alice is not anything special. In the original, I failed to see what was so great about her. She is not especially strong, smart, or resourceful. It felt like Alice was the final girl just because the other cast members possess less star power than King. Now, compared King to Steel, the difference is night and day. I wished that Ginny had been on screen more because from the moment she pulled her sputtering car up (late) to the first camp counselor meeting, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It is no wonder Paul is enamored with her. The performers share chemistry.

The kills are not necessarily bigger but more in-your-face. Perhaps it has something to do with editing that is more skilled, urgent. The machete-to-the-face scene actually made me flinch. It is frustrating, however, that director Steve Miner is even more fond of close-ups compared to “Friday the 13th” director Sean S. Cunningham. It is so commonly used, it cheapens an already schlocky material. Why not simply trust the violence or death on screen without having to result to such tactics? It looks like an approach made for TV movies.

Is it worth sitting through “Friday the 13th Part 2” even though it takes quite a while to take off? I think it is, especially if you consider yourself to be a horror aficionado, if only for the sole reason of the killer actually being Jason Voorhees (Warrington Gillette) this time around. As far as slashers go, it isn’t anything special but it’s tolerable.

Friday the 13th


Friday the 13th (1980)
★★ / ★★★★

A drowning in 1957 and two kids murdered in 1958, it is no surprise that the locals refer to Camp Crystal Lake as Camp Blood. So when they learn that it is about to open for business in two weeks, they struggle to hide their disapproval. Sean S. Cunningham’s classic slasher picture “Friday the 13th” offers a mildly entertaining time, but it isn’t anything special. The body count is high, but the build-up toward the kills are not especially suspenseful or creative nor the kills themselves cathartic or thrilling. And with a short running time of ninety-five minutes, there are stretches here that drag.

The one neat thing about the film is that it does a good job in hiding who the final girl might be. I assumed it would be Annie (Robbies Morgan) given that she is first to be shown on screen and she exhibits a sort of independence and pluck. She claims to love children, and the rumors around town do not disturb her. She is even shown being nice to a dog on the street. Annie is one of the camp counselors, specifically the cook, on her way to the lake. The rest of the counselors (Adrienne King, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson) wonder what’s taking her so long to get there. It’s getting dark.

I appreciated that by end of the movie, we have an appreciation of the different spots of Camp Crystal Lake. For instance, where the dock is located relative to the cabins and the cabins relative to the archery range. It looks and feels like an actual camp instead of a set built for the sole purpose of making a horror movie. Over time, we grow familiar with these places. So when a camp counselor is killed at a certain location and another person visits that same place but the corpse is hidden somewhere nearby, we have a gut reaction to the scene in front of us. Most disappointing, however, is that the director does not seem to possess a keen or insightful eye on how to shoot a murder effectively. More thought is put into reaction shots.

Perhaps it has something to do with the limited budget. But I’m not convinced. You see, in John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” which was released two years prior and also under a limited budget, every scene comes across as focused and polished. There is a sense of control, as though its aim is to deliver a specific experience and mood. “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” even open in a similar way: We see through the eyes of a killer. But the former has an extra detail to it: We see through the killer’s eyes who happens to be wearing a mask. It is off-putting, especially when we are shown a tiny hand—a child’s hand—grabbing a knife. In this film, by comparison, the execution is painfully ordinary, generic. The camera takes on the first person perspective as it observes women sleeping. It is uninspired and cheap.

The kills are violent and gruesome, but not one of them invokes a strong visceral reaction. For instance, when a throat is cut with a blade or when a spear pierces through someone’s throat, the practical effects are all too apparent. This is a movie drenched in shadows (there is an issue with the camp generator eventually) yet when it is time to cut someone open, the money shot is always—always—well-lit. There is irony there. But I think the intention is not to generate irony but rather cheers or gasps of horror. Cue the overbearing musical score when a counselor is just about to bite the dust. I was not impressed or moved by this consistently obvious approach.

“Friday the 13th” is written by Victor Miller. The story is straightforward, but the dialogue underachieves in that everybody seems to talk the same way. There is a hint thrown in that at least a few of the counselors have come from different parts of the country. And yet they are not written with enough specificity so that we are able to discern among them with ease. While not necessary that we learn their backstories—it is a slasher film after all—it is important that we know them a little bit outside of their physicality.

The Command


The Command (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

On the surface, “The Command,” inspired by the biggest submarine disaster in history and based on Robert Moore’s book “A Time to Die,” is a disaster film: a Russian Navy exercise turns deadly when one of the torpedoes, due to a hydrogen peroxide leak from within, overheats and causes a series of explosions which renders the “unsinkable” submarine utterly destroyed in the bottom of the Barents Sea. The surviving sailors must wait for rescue as water levels rise and temperature continues to drop. But those who choose to look closely will realize that the film is not a popcorn flick. It filled with sadness and anger. It is a condemnation of politics and bureaucracy when a life-or-death situation demands that these petty things be set aside.

The work is written for the screen by Robert Rodat and directed by Thomas Vinterberg. It is a fruitful partnership because the screenplay is filled with nonverbal cues that communicate plenty about the characters, especially when they are trapped in their own thoughts and are forced to wrestle with grim possibilities. To support this, the direction is patient and precise; notice the framing of how hands tremble when terrible news is heard for the first time, how eyes search the room for answers regarding loved ones, how a person breathes while facing an impossible situation. By providing images filled with rich, haunting, and useful information, the filmmakers engage the audience—not because of the disaster itself but because of the people affected by it.

But this isn’t to suggest that the picture lacks tense moments. A standout involves Captain-Lieutenant Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a fellow sailor having to dive into a lower level of the flooded submarine in order to acquire adaptors for an oxygen generator. The first attempt of rescue by the Russians has failed; the trapped sailors know that the next attempt will not occur for several hours. The task itself is seemingly insurmountable because the compartment where the adaptors are stored is quite a distance away. In order to hasten their swim time, the volunteers must remove their clothing with the exception of shorts and cloth wrapped around their biceps which serves to hold a flashlight in place. By providing pertinent details and taking the time to present these details, it allows us to imagine how cold the two must get with every second they must spend in that water. We are already worried for them even before the dive.

Events outside the submarine gather tension, too. Mikhail’s pregnant wife (Léa Seydoux), their firstborn in tow (Artemiy Spiridonov), along with other Navy wives, demand answers from officials. They are constantly denied by fancy men in uniform with their roundabout way of speaking. These women are not to be taken as fools. Out on the ocean, Admiral Grudzinsky (Peter Simonischek) is wise enough consider the possibility that Russia might need help from other nations after two failed rescue attempts despite the fact that his superiors demand that the circumstances be kept secret. You see, officials like Vladimir Petrenko (Max von Sydow) would rather protect their Naval secrets from foreigners than the men in the submarine—technology over human lives. Meanwhile, Commodore Russell (Colin Firth), a Brit, extends a helping hand to the Russians from the moment explosions are detected under the sea.

“Kursk” is a high quality dramatic thriller because it understands the importance of details. Although the final act is a bit rushed—it ends just when anger is at its peak—I admired that every step is presented in a clear and intelligent manner. We always have an answer to what is happening, why it is happening, and how it is happening. And despite having at least half a dozen key characters, we have an understanding of each one even though we may not always agree with his or her choices. Choices decided the fate these sailors.

Submergence


Submergence (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those expecting a typical romance in which a potential couple meet, court, and live happily ever after are in for a big disappointment because, although beautifully photographed, Wim Wenders’ “Submergence” is more adult-oriented than fantasy-leaning escapism. Rather than focusing on plot, it is interested in showing challenging circumstances, building a perfect mood to capture longing and loneliness, presenting the details of one’s work, and underlining the distance between lovers than it is about showing its subjects physically interacting to make the viewers swoon. Its vision is without compromise and I respect that.

Notice the atypical technique in which succeeding scenes are presented. It is fluid, like water, an important symbol in the picture, almost as though we are seeing the images through a flow of consciousness or deeply personal, somewhat guarded memories. It is important, I think, that it is presented in this manner so that audiences get an impression of the feelings of incompleteness that the two lovers undergo when they are separated. Because of their occupations, there is no two-way letter-writing or texting involved. And in addition to the subjects not knowing each other for very long before they must separate, there is only uncertainty. Here is a film in which we grow increasingly unsure whether the protagonists would see each other again—a rarity in the romance sub-genre.

Danielle and James, a bio-mathematician preparing for a deep-sea dive and a British spy posing as a water engineer, are played by Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy, respectively. They share solid chemistry as their characters meet in a stunning seaside hotel in Normandy. As intuitive performers, closely observe their body languages as requisite lines are uttered with subtlety and passion. Because by also focusing on the unsaid, it provides us a more complete picture of what these characters are about and what they hope to achieve. It is critical that we feel or understand Danielle and James’ love for what they do, their personal and professional missions, so that we buy into the idea of why they ultimately choose to put themselves in potentially dangerous situations.

Yes, the dialogue offers some scientific jargon, which may be a challenge to sit through for some, but I think the focus ought to be on the intention behind these words. The dialogue is written so beautifully that at times, for example, Danielle may choose to use opaque words in order to hide her feelings of awkwardness with a man she just met. But what makes James interesting, for instance, is that he is a great listener, a skill that is required in his line of work, and so he is able to pierce through the fog and reach her. Still, however, she offers surprises in store. Their meeting is only the setup for the plot but it is so strong, it could have been an entire picture on its own.

Beauty and brutality collide when Danielle and James follow their respective paths. Hydrothermal vents in the deep Atlantic Ocean look like alien worlds while jihadists treat precious human lives as insects to be crushed at the slightest sign of annoyance. Interiors of ships, particularly of a laboratory filled with curious equipments, are polished and elegant while interiors of war-ravaged buildings, particularly the unsanitary clinic, highlight the fears and overall unhappiness—torment—of a community. We are meant to wonder whether Danielle and James’ contrasting worlds are so different, they might end up getting sucked into them, extinguishing every chance of getting back together. But what’s brilliant, I think, is the picture does not simply rely on a romantic reunion.

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan


The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (2018)
★ / ★★★★

There is a curious drama hidden underneath “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” written by Xavier Dolan and Jacob Tierney, a story that involves correspondences between an eleven-year-old boy who aspires to become an actor (Jacob Tremblay) and an adult television actor on the verge of superstardom (Kit Harington), but its fancy touches—like where a camera is placed in order to show a scene in a “unique” way, how characters tend to break into speeches when emotions run high, on-the-nose songs playing suddenly on the radio designed to underscore how a person is feeling just in case the audience doesn’t quite “get” it—bog it down. For a film about crippling loneliness, it seems afraid or unwilling to get to the point. There is a minefield of unnecessary decorations here. Sometimes less is more.

It is all the more disappointing that the film is filled to the brim with wonderful supporting performances, from Susan Sarandon as the titular character’s alcoholic mother, Natalie Portman portraying a former actress whose promising career perished when the father of her child decided to abandon them, to Thandie Newton as a journalist, typically covering politics, who is thrusted, much to her dismay and exasperation, into interviewing an actor named Rupert Turner (Ben Schnetzer)—the boy, now a man, whose idol died due to drug overdose in 2006.

But out of these veteran performers, Kathy Bates and Michael Gambon shine brightest, the former playing John’s no-nonsense manager and the latter as a grandfather whose grandson is a big fan of John’s. They stand out for two reasons: 1) strong performances that demand the viewers to look at the screen without blinking and to listen deeply and 2) their ability to put into context what writer-director Dolan fails to accomplish. The Bates character underlines that in order for John to live a life of happiness and fulfillment—and they are two different things—he needs to live an honest life. Meanwhile, the Gambon character highlights the fact that sometimes we forget what we know we deserve. Dolan’s story involves dreams, Hollywood, and celebrity, but Bates and Gambon reminds us of the humanity of the people who choose to live a life in front of the camera—that John and Rupert’s stories are relevant to yours and mine.

John keeps a secret that the fact he is a homosexual. But there is no drama. Does he wish to keep it a secret because he fears it would extinguish his blossoming career? (He is shown to be a heartthrob, similar to Leonardo DiCaprio in the ‘90s.) Or does he simply hate the fact that he is gay? Is it a mix of both—or something else entirely? The viewers are left to make numerous assumptions based on stories—better stories—from other movies—better movies—we’ve seen before. But this is a mistake because we are supposed to learn about and empathize with a specific character, not some vague idea or archetype. It is supposed to be a personal story, perhaps even autobiographical, but it lacks flavor and specificity. It doesn’t work.

The drama is dead dull. It has nothing new or special to say about modern celebrity, idolatry, or public and private spheres. And yet it has the bravado to cover itself with stylistic pretensions. I was so detached from it, that, at one point, childhood bullying is happening front and center… yet I caught myself trying to read texts of various posters in the classroom.

The Evil Dead


The Evil Dead (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★

Windows magically being repaired two or three scenes later, decaying flesh along the hands and arms looking like modified gloves in order to minimize time and effort in reapplying makeup, and the fog sitting so thick in one area of the screen that one could practically pinpoint the precise location of the fog machine are only some of the myriad “mistakes” (read: charm) in Sam Raimi’s horror classic “The Evil Dead.” And yet the movie stands the test of time because it is propelled with unbridled passion for the work. Love can be felt in every square inch of this movie—flaws and all. One does not have to wonder why it has such a strong cult following.

The characters may not be smart nor do they undergo compelling development, but the writer-director is consistently one step ahead. Notice his vision right from the opening sequence in which five university students (Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly) drive toward the isolated rundown cabin in the woods. Editing is swift and generous: we are placed inside the car one moment and out in the woods the next. Both places are alive: the chattering of youth who are excited to begin their weekend getaway and the hunger of the spirits in the woods waiting to possess their next victims. There is energy in the push and pull between natural and supernatural forces. Although apparent that the film has low budget, it cannot be denied that it is filled to the brim with purpose.

Its purpose is to entertain. Nothing else. In modern horror films, it takes at least telling a third of the story until the main players get on the same page and recognize that something bizarre or horrible might be happening. In this movie, the cellar door bursts open on its own during the first ten minutes. There is no room for stupid questions like, “What’s going on?” “Is this really happening?” “Should we call the police?” These unsuspecting victims are thrown right into the mouth of hell; we expect most of them to die in gruesome ways (and they do) and for one to survive. And all this is before they find the dreaded book with human skin as its cover.

Campbell has the face of a hero, but the practical special effects is the star of the show. Here is a movie that shows viewers dismembered human body parts but because the person—or what was once a person—had been possessed by evil, the chopped up limbs remain to tremble on their own. It is a terrifying image even by today’s standards.

Think about it: most violent horror movies settle for showing hacked up bodies—which shows the aftermath of violence—but special projects, those that go the extra mile, tend to highlight the horror after the fact. And because they do, these types of images tend to stick in the mind. This is just one example. Another is the scene involving a woman being attacked by trees in the forest. It sounds amusing: plants attacking a human being. But the way it is shot in addition to the extended duration of the attack, it feels like we are watching a woman get raped in slow motion. (Her desperate screaming for help adds further urgency to the scene.) We are meant to be horrified, uncomfortable. Perhaps we might laugh precisely because doing so is cathartic. Isn’t that the point of horror stories: to provide catharsis?

“The Evil Dead” is no generic horror film. It is kinetic, smart, daring, and atmospheric. It can be enjoyed on a superficial level: college students get more than what they bargained for after a voice from an old tape recorder utters phrases in Ancient Sumerian. Or it can be enjoyed as an experience: how sounds of demonic voices (which changes depending on the person possessed) taunting never let up, how the camera remains dead still when showing a body part being torn off, how the enthusiastic writer-director juggles suspense, jolts, and horror with seeming ease.

Plagues of Breslau


Plagues of Breslau (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Patryk Vega’s “Plagues of Breslau” begins with a curious premise involving a cow hide being found in a market and inside it is a man who has died only two hours prior, but despite the handful of grim occurrences throughout, it is not a captivating thriller. It is as clear as day that the picture is highly influenced by Jonathan Demme’s modern classic “The Silence of the Lambs” and David Fincher’s savagely entertaining “Se7en.” However, it does not possess a screenplay that is character-driven nor one that is deeply interested in complex morality. What results is a parade of reveals surrounding fresh corpses with words seared on their bodies: “degenerate,” “corrupt,” “oppressor,” and the like. What should be gruesome grows stale.

Lead investigator of the serial killings in Wrocław is Helena whom we meet in her car, crying and holding a pistol in her hand. She is played by Malgorzata Kozuchowska with silent intensity and with a voice so calm, even soft at times, we wonder if she is moved at all by the murders. Or perhaps she is numbed by the fact that although her fiancé had been killed by a drunk driver, the driver went unpunished. Does she harbor anger for the system she works for? Clearly, she remains in mourning. Is she fit to be on the job at this time, especially when facing a very clever unsub?

Kozuchowska makes some fresh choices on how to portray Helena despite the screenplay’s lack of willingness to engage with the character in such a way that by the end we see a whole person rather than a tough persona of a woman who has been in the police force for years. The work does not answer the question of why this particular heroine is worth following other than she is simply on screen sporting a quirky haircut (a third of her head is shaved). The shallow characterization makes, for example, flashbacks toward the end feel rather cheap, tacked on. Although they fill in certain pieces of the puzzle, these revelations come across forced.

It is a shame because the picture offers a few attention-grabbing set pieces. A great example involves a racehorse galloping down the street as terrorized pedestrians jump out of its way. Because the action functions on such a level, matched by skilled editing and energetic framing, we miss so much information at a given time that when a twist occurs, we feel it is deserved because all the answers have been presented to us. It plays fair. If only the rest of the movie functioned on a consistently breathless but detailed level.

Notice when the action dies down, there is minimal detective work. Helena and Iwona (Daria Widawska), a specialist profiler from Warsaw, visit places and interrogate citizens, but there is a dearth of hands-on, dirty police work; it feels sanitized, a fantasy version of what actual police work is like. We merely anticipate what the killer will do before 6PM strikes. Because it is revealed early on that the unsub appears to be inspired by an 18th century figure who felt he needed to purge human fallacies (degeneracy, pillaging, corruption, slandering, oppression, treachery) in order to bring justice and peace to his city. And so for one week, beginning on Monday, one person who is guilty of one of the fallacies will be publicly executed. (Sunday is considered to be a holiday so a total of 6 people are expected to die.)

“Plagues of Breslau” plays a hand so conventional, I thought about similar television shows that work on a much higher level about half a dozen times. While it can be entertaining on the surface level, there is nothing but air once you bite into it. Certain elements—like women being disrespected in a traditionally masculine work force or what is expected from the female gender despite so-called progressivism in our modern times—are there to make a really angry film with something of value to say. But for some reason, the writer-director fails to focus on what it is he wishes to communicate by using serial killings as a template.

The Half of It


The Half of It (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ellie Chu’s (Leah Lewis) claim that the story she’s about to show us not being a love story is wrong. Because in the beginning of her story, Ellie’s definition of love is narrow. She can use words to describe what love is based on books, movies, television, and other people’s accounts, but not based on her own experiences. “The Half of It,” written and directed by Alice Wu, is a love story, not between the football player, Paul (Daniel Diemer), and the pretty girl who loves art and literature, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), nor is it a love story between Ellie and Aster. It is a love story of surprising friendship between Ellie and Paul. By the end of the movie we know deep in our gut that this unlikely duo would go on to have a lasting and meaningful relationship. I’d love to know where they are in their lives twenty years from now.

The plot is set up like a typical screwball comedy. It is well-known to her classmates that Ellie runs a business writing essays—“It’s an A or you don’t pay.” Paul, self-proclaimed to be not so good with words, comes up with what he thinks to be a great idea: Hire Ellie to write—not an essay—but an anonymous love letter addressed to Aster, the very same girl Ellie has a crush on, so that Paul, once he reveals he is “actually” the anonymous writer, can have a chance of taking Aster on a date. Although convinced at first it is a bad idea, Ellie decides to take on the job—for $50 dollars instead of the usual $20. Utility bills are overdue. All of these contortions and gymnastics regarding false hopes, yearnings, and mistaken identities are handled with clarity, energy, and a real joy for the material.

It is most enjoyable to watch Ellie and Paul’s scheming partnership evolve into a friendship. There is a very funny scene that perfectly encapsulates how different they are compared to one another outside of physicality (he’s tall, she’s short), hobbies and interests (he’s an athlete, she’s a brainiac; he’s a cook, she’s a musician), and cultural identities (he’s caucasian, she’s Chinese). It involves an Indian movie where a sad-looking woman is sitting on a train and her lover outside chases after her once the train starts moving.

Ellie focuses on how ridiculous it looks and the impracticality of doing such a thing in real life. She’s not down for grand and fantastic gestures. Meanwhile, Paul’s attention is on the feeling that the scene evokes and what the gesture means for the characters in the movie. He thinks there is not a poetic bone in his body, but his innate sweetness reeks of it. This is just one clever example from at least a dozen instances of the duo’s contrasting personalities and worldview. They clash but in a quiet way. At times their exchanges are dripping with sarcasm (mostly from Ellie). The friendship is often handled with humor, tenderness, and good ear for dialogue.

The picture is not without disappointing clichés that I wished had been removed completely. For example, there is a speech in front of a crowd designed to cause major drama which I not only did not buy at all, I felt the decision to put this scene in the movie betrayed the more humble elements that came before. Another annoying addition involves some of the classmates bullying Ellie due to her ethnic identity. Why include it in the picture when the bullying is not shown to be especially hurtful or pernicious? At times it looked silly, light, or fun. Do not get me started on those dumb standing ovations. These do not belong in this otherwise terrific film.

“The Half of It” is an LGBTQIA+ picture in which sexuality is deemed not to be the most important thing. By doing so, it makes the case that sexuality is identity, but it is not necessarily a defining feature—at least in this story and from Ellie’s point of view. It has more in its mind than simply getting the boy or the girl or coming out of the closet. It is about specific young people who wish for freedom above all—the freedom to create, the freedom to stand up, the freedom to leave the only place she’s ever known, the freedom to love and be.

Blood Quantum


Blood Quantum (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The earth is an animal. Living and breathing. White men don’t understand this.”

Writer-director Jeff Barnaby offers a fresh take on the zombie subgenre by centering the story around a community of indigenous people in Canada. It works as a strong commentary on colonialism, but it is also savagely entertaining, filled with beautiful and haunting images of barren post-apocalyptic landscapes, of animals infected with an unknown virus, and of diseased and dying people. Unlike its contemporaries, particularly American undead pictures, it does not go out of its way to make stabbings, slashings, and beheadings particularly exciting or thrilling. Often the act of taking a life—dead or undead—is sad, poetic, a thing that must be done for the greater good.

Right from the opening scene we are presented a curiosity. An old man (Stonehorse Lone Goeman) guts fish he had taken out of the water. Nothing strange or new, just another peaceful day. Or so it seems. The fish appear to be dead on the platter… until they begin to move, subtlety at first then breaking out into horrifying convulsions. This perfectly sets up how the story will unfold, and Barnaby tackles the material with an expert level of control and confidence. He wastes no time introducing the characters while proving he has an ear for quiet and thoughtful dialogue. All of this is handed to us in under fifteen minutes. Barnaby is one to watch.

One of the characters we meet is Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), a local sheriff in Red Crow Reservation whose two sons, Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and Alan/“Lysol” (Kiowa Gordon), have just been taken behind bars. We learn that the two brothers are estranged and the former wishes to get to know the other better. The latter is angry toward his father but for reasons that are murky. We can surmise, however, that Lysol feels abandoned. He dares not admit to it, but he is eyes scream the fact he jealous of his younger sibling. Surrounding this family drama, one that is never syrupy or melodramatic, is an awakening of a pandemic. We hear over radio that there are increasing reports of bites and that ambulances have been unavailable for the past couple of hours. Some who have called for help are still waiting for medical attention hours later. Soon we get to see why.

Although told elegantly with rich context and subtext, the work is not above delivering B-movie violence and gore. The aforementioned fisherman wields a sword like a dauntless samurai. We meet a man with an imposing presence who prefers to use a chainsaw to defend himself against hordes of zombies (Brandon Oakes). Naturally, Traylor the cop prefers guns even though it is loud and attention-grabbing—the opposite of his personality. The screenplay possesses a wicked sense of visual humor, too, like how the upper torso of a zombie hangs out of a window held together only by its own intestines or how certain angles of limbs that have just been chopped off look laughably fake, doll-like, mannequins.

There is an antagonist that emerges later on whose big picture reasoning makes sense but specifics are muddled. I found this to be a weak spot of the picture because his arguments are not thoroughly laid out in such a way that we are compelled to root for him, too. Instead, he is eventually reduced to a sort of mad figure who spouts nonsense.

In essence, he argues that it is not a good idea to rescue people without proper restrictions. Specifically, by welcoming outsiders—white people—nilly-willy into their indigenous community, whose members are immune to the zombie virus, it endangers everyone in the compound who have been thoroughly examined. This antagonist could have been compelling had the writer-director painted the man as a pragmatic, clear-thinking survivor all the way through. The final fifteen minutes lacks freshness.

Still, “Blood Quantum” is worth seeing for its strengths. It is consistently entertaining, intelligent, and possesses the ability to surprise from time to time. It made me curious about what other stories Barnaby has yet to tell. It is no easy feat to inject something new and exciting to an otherwise tired subgenre.

The House That Jack Built


The House That Jack Built (2018)
★ / ★★★★

At one point the viewer is forced to wonder the point of what Lars von Trier is trying to make because his psychological horror film goes off on numerous tangents—at times at the cost of the story’s momentum—that the work comes across lacking in focus and discipline. On the surface, it is about an engineer with an obsessive-compulsive disorder who just so happens to be a serial killer. Deeper, I guess, is a rumination surrounding a subject who is born evil but his actions are human and therefore flawed. And these imperfections are peppered with darkly comic moments—occasionally during the murders themselves. It is a movie for me, but I found only minimal enjoyment, entertainment, or value out of it.

One positive quality is the solid performances. Matt Dillon is front and center as the titular character who considers himself to be so smart and polished that later on Jack gives himself the serial killer name “Mr. Sophistication.” However, throughout the five incidents he recalls, which spans over twelve years, he may consider his victims as dumb and stupid—many of them caucasian women—but his actions reveal, too, that he himself is not as intelligent as he believes he is. Throughout the years, there is growth in the character’s level of violence and elaborate killing sprees, but he tends to make similar mistakes, particularly in the risk-taking of possibly getting caught. Dillon plays Jack with charm and sense of humor; the camera loves his face but there is not a second in which we doubt that the subject is pure evil.

Two actors match Dillon’s energetic performance: Uma Thurman as a woman who asks Jack’s help when her vehicle broke down and Riley Keough as Jack’s girlfriend with whom he confesses that he is in fact Mr. Sophistication. She does not believe him and laughs. Two different performances: the former acting as though she is in a satire (the character keeps going on about serial killers) and the latter in an independent drama (she mumbles a lot and lets her eyes do most of the talking)—both approaches work because it shows that Jack can be adaptable as a hunter. It is necessary that we observe him interact with a spectrum of personalities so that we believe that he can actually entrap and eventually murder 60 people in a span of twelve years.

Nearly everything else about the picture is less compelling. Particularly boring are the side conversations between Jack and Verge (yes, the iconic Roman poet—played by Bruno Ganz) as they make a literal descent to Hell. Their exchanges are neither interesting nor possessing a high enough energy to mask their words’ emptiness. I felt no connection between the actors as well as their characters. Worse, their dialogue reveals nothing new about the subject and so the whole charade feels like fluff, padding—problematic because the work is nearly two and a half hours. The film tests the patience.

There are times when the violence is meant to be satirical, particularly the third incident in which Jack decides to “play” with children by shooting them down like animals. Murdering children for fun (one of them ends up being “preserved” in a cold room) is as dark as it gets, but it does not work here because the screenplay has not yet provided enough details about the central character so that we 1) have an appreciation of Jack’s actions which may hint at his own childhood and 2) are able to chuckle at the ridiculousness of it all. Context matters and with von Trier, when not at his full power, he tends to go for shock value over providing deeper or insightful content—as is the case here.

Faces Places


Faces Places (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda and muralist JR (a pseudonym) travel across rural France to paste enormous photographic portraits on various surfaces: a brick wall, a passageway of a factory, a water tower, a barn, a bunker, among others. Each portrait is meant to capture and reflect a particular place’s people and way of life. It is a beautiful documentary, so full of life and energy, humor, and truths, occasionally painful, about how we perceive people, how we interpret art, and how our relationship with our own selves change over the years. It is perhaps chance that Varda and JR, co-directors of “Faces Places,” cross paths and decide to work together, but it is no accident that their over fifty-year difference in age serves as the soul of the project.

It is the kind of picture that is certain to make the viewer feel good. For instance, one of the stops involves meeting a woman named Jeanine who is the sole resident along her street. The houses are meant to be destroyed eventually but she insists on staying not only because it is her home, it also her ancestors’. The village is made up of miner families, you see, and its strong history can be felt from the way people of all ages recall their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers coming home from an excruciating day at the mines. At first glance, it looks like any old place. The film has a way of peeling away the metaphorical surface by, ironically, putting photographs on literal surfaces. No word is necessary when members of the community look up to giant pictures and the camera captures their raw thoughts and emotions.

In nearly every destination the picture works like this. We learn about a farmer who owns a 2,000-acre farm… and he works by himself. We go inside of his tractor and appreciate the technology that allows him to accomplish the monumental task of taking care of his farm by himself on top of other contract work. At times the visit lasts only between five to ten minutes and within this time span we not only gather surprising information but also have an appreciation of the subject’s way of life. It is a work that loves people of all ages, not just their portraits. Look at the way the camera transfixes on old people’s faces. It forces us to look at their wrinkles, the bags under their eyes, and the experiences behind them. And then note how it captures the expressions of energetic youths as their giant photographs are printed from a truck. You can tell they have never seen anything like that before; for them it is magical.

The work, too, is not afraid to show truths about its subjects. With Varda, a lifelong photographer of both still and moving images, it shows she has an eye disease. She claims that images are blurry and they tend to move even when they actually aren’t. We observe her getting a check-up. With JR, it acknowledges how he grew up with old people which ties into his attitude toward them. Varda and JR share wonderful chemistry; they are so comfortable with one another that eventually there is a recurring request from Varda for JR to take off his sunglasses. He finds a way to avoid it nearly every time. It is a part of his costume, his disguise. Why is it that he feels the need to hide his name from the world? Is it solely due to an artistic choice or something else?

I found the picture to be most compelling when it deals with the topic of mortality. The recurring theme is memories and how each place is defined by those who inherited it. Yet the residents we meet do not give the impression that they are shackled by traditions or old beliefs. They are simply playing the hands they are given. A lot of them seem to be happy and willing to share their own stories. When asked about death, Varda’s response surprised me. Her quote (which I choose not to include here because I urge you to see the picture, if you’re even remotely interested in it) is my exact attitude about death. Ironically, for some reason, it made me feel less alone.