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.

Calibre


Calibre (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

The British suspense-thriller “Calibre” is the kind of picture that glues viewers onto their seats. The premise involving a hunting gone wrong is quite standard, but it is elevated by writer-director Matt Palmer’s efficient screenplay. Notice that once living bodies hit the ground, every scene inspires the audience to ask, “Then what happens?” Will the two friends and eventual murderers, Marcus (Martin McCann) and Vaughn (Jack Lowden), make it out of the Scottish village or will they die in the hands of a close-knit community who believes that a debt must be paid in full?

We are provided information about how the friendship works. Vaughn, a father-to-be, is the more soft-spoken of the two former boarding schoolmates. We have a clear picture of his morality. He is supposed to be the “good” half of the duo. Marcus the businessman is single, confident, and enjoys having fun with a line of cocaine or three. He takes risks and draws attention to himself—inadvertently or otherwise. Palmer ensures to keep the camera on Marcus as rural folks measure him up. Marcus enjoys attention and admiration. It is critical that we have an appreciation of how the two men are like together and apart. We are meant to observe how they react the moment they shoot a person dead. We measure how their morals are similar or different to our own.

Surely the dead deserves justice, but it is curious that we find ourselves rooting for Marcus and Vaughn to make it out of the village alive anyway. It is not that we wish for them to get away with murder. But if they did not, then there would be more corpses by the time the weekend rolls around. Yes, it is a survival thriller. However, the writer-director underlines the fact that the duo must survive first in order for the situation to have a possibility of being corrected—at least when it comes to the standard rule of law. At the same time, the writing makes a point that because the community lives way up in the mountains, they have their own laws, rules, and morality.

The picture is shot in a matter-of-fact way. I appreciated its simplicity. The ground is always wet and muddy—the filmmakers do not go out of their way to make the woods, the various business establishments, and the people look beautiful or appealing. They just are so it is easy to believe that this particular isolated village exists out there somewhere.

Foot chases possess a savageness to them. Nervous and guilty people on the run get tired easily. There is minimal score. It is so quiet at times that we can almost hear the characters think. When they stare off into space, it is a statement. As they evaluate situations, notice the fond use of close-ups. Clearly, Lowden and McCann are expressive performers. It is not a surprise that the villages eventually begin to suspect their characters. Yes, they are outsiders. And, yes, they are the only ones hunting that day. But they also tend to wear guilty looks on their faces. They are worthy of suspicion. It is darkly comic how something always comes up which prevents the two from leaving the village. Maybe they are already sentenced to hell.

“Calibre” strums the nerves as if they were guitar strings. It is entertaining because the writer-director appears to have an understanding of the push-and-pull among suspense, action, and thrill. At its best, the material even goes out of its way to touch upon the economic hardships of rural communities, how desperate people are unable to find work so they can put food on the table. I wish this aspect were explored more thoroughly, not only a passing glance. It is no accident that our protagonists come from the city.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web


The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Yes, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is a cold and impersonal action-thriller. Given that four films have been released prior, it assumes that the audience already has a basic idea of who the protagonist is and what she is capable of. This gives a chance for director Fede Álvarez, who co-adapted the screenplay with Jay Basu and Steven Knight from David Lagercrantz’ novel of the same name, to present a story in a way that breezes through the usual character introductions and quickly get to the conflict that is specific to this installment. On this level, it works.

This time, vigilante hacker Lisbeth Salander, punisher of men who mistreat women, is played by Claire Foy. Her portrayal is a welcome change from Rooney Mara’s nearly impenetrable enigma. Foy may not be as tough physically as Mara and Noomi Rapace, but I found her interpretation of the character to be strong by comparison given that she has more range when it comes to delivering the necessary and appropriate emotions under certain turn of events. And because the plot is tethered to Salander’s painful and traumatic childhood, a performer with a more believable and relatable emotional range is preferred. The paradox is interesting: there is a softness to Foy that shines through the masculine look of sporting a mohawk, wearing a leather jacket, piercings, tattoos, heavy cosmetics, and stealing a Lamborghini.

Rising action and climaxes are slick and suspenseful. Five groups wish to have their hands on Firewall, a program developed for Americans that is capable of breaching and taking control of nuclear codes—including those of other nations. Each faction’s motivation is presented in a clear and precise manner; so although the pacing is unapologetically swift, those willing to pay attention and focus on the chess pieces moving across the board will likely be able to follow the sudden and occasionally violent left turns. Notice that each explosion or shootout is preceded by patient build-up such as observing from afar or masked trigger-happy henchmen being captured on digital cameras.

An area of improvement is Salander’s relationship with Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason). While I appreciated that the script does not rehash their past, the material fails to move their professional relationship in a forward direction. Attempts are made, like Salander trusting Blomkvist with a child prodigy’s life (whose father, played by Stephen Merchant, is the creator of Firewall), but they barely say more than five lines of dialogue to one another. Perhaps we are supposed to extract information from the heavy silence between them, but this technique only works when the work is largely character-driven and there is an evolving trajectory in the characters’ connection.

I found “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” to be captivating because it is unlike so many generic American action-thrillers where action comes first and thrills are secondary. Here, we get the impression that chase, the tease, is more important than extracting entertainment from violence. And when it does lean toward the latter, particularly in the third act, the change is welcome.

3 from Hell


3 from Hell (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The third—and hopefully last—entry in writer-director Rob Zombie’s “Firefly” trilogy looks and feels like a swan song. Fourteen years has passed since the second installment and this film’s rickety old bones can barely sustain the already skeletal plot. What results is a horror movie that spends nearly half of its two-hour running time spewing tedious exposition surrounding Baby’s (Sheri Moon Zombie) experiences in prison and eventual escape in order to join her equally murderous brothers (Bill Moseley as Otis, Richard Brake as Winslow). Sure, it delivers the expected violence and gore, but the filmmaker made the incorrect assumption that the fans of “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects” did not mature. Wouldn’t it have been too much to deliver something unexpected, something other than constant noise and mayhem? Because it is apparent during the first fifteen minutes that Zombie is capable of so much more. For instance, I enjoyed the recreation of ‘70s news reels and there is some morbid energy put forth in reminding the viewers of the subjects’ monstrosity—evil personified. But the rest of the work feels unnecessary; Zombie did not even have the sense to realize that the story has ended around the seventy-minute mark. The rest of the time offers nothing of value, no consequences.

Final Destination 5


Final Destination 5 (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Although now in the hands of filmmakers who have not helmed a “Final Destination” feature, director Steve Quale and screenwriter Eric Heisserer fail to inject freshness to the fourth sequel of the franchise. Instead, it follows the same stagnant formula: a shallow introduction of the characters, a premonition sequence involving gory deaths due to calamity, a funeral scene, one of the survivors from said tragedy dying in a bizarre way, second and third deaths immediately following, and the remaining survivors figuring out that Death is coming after them in the order that they die in the premonition—boring; we’ve seen it all before. A strong argument can be made that this movie is essentially the first “Final Destination” only with different actors.

It is given one twist so pedestrian, it digests like a bad joke. A returning character, the portentous William Bludworth (Tony Todd), claims that in order to defeat Death, a survivor must kill another person who is not meant to die—to balance Death’s books and all that. Now, I have seen the previous four movies and there is not one hint that this course of action could potentially work. The material runs with this idiotic idea and so the final act is reduced to a person wielding a gun and chasing other survivors—as if the picture were an action-thriller. It shows that Heisserer possesses no understanding of what makes the premise of the series stand out from other horror movies. Clearly, this is a work without purpose or inspiration.

Overall, it is an improvement from the awful “The Final Destination” (the fourth installment in the series)—but not significantly better. The opening tragedy involving a bridge collapse actually takes its time to unfold even though in some of the more ostentatious deaths look like too much CGI was used. Nicholas D’Agosto as the seer Sam is tolerable, but his character is not given much to work with. Sam is the standard nice guy who wishes to settle down with his girlfriend and so he is willing to put his dreams on hold just so they could be together. (Yawn.) Compared to the other survivors with more pronounced personalities (cardboard cutouts played by Miles Fisher, Jacqueline MacInnes Wood, and P.J. Byrne), Sam is a bore. Halfway through, I felt D’Agosto wanting to do more, but the writing has already proven to be painfully unimaginative.

There is one inspired death sequence that takes place in a medical facility. One of the survivors wishes to get laser eye surgery because she deems that life is too short for her to miss anything. Irony begins from the moment she steps into that building and, well, whatever happens afterwards. I cringed—and I think most people do, too—at the idea of being stuck in a chair, eyelids being forced open by a metallic apparatus, as the laser activates without a trained professional in the room. This scene is executed with so much energy and dark humor, it made me wish the entire movie functioned on this level. But it is a steep downhill trajectory after this brilliant scene.

As of this writing, there has not been a follow-up to “Final Destination 5” which I think supports claims that the series has grown so stale. It is an embarrassing entry not because it follows a formula but precisely because it has failed to move the formula in any interesting direction while remaining loyal to brand. Perhaps if the writer and director actually revisited “Final Destination 2,” they might have stood a chance at making a solid movie because that first sequel successfully expanded upon what worked in the original and made Death a more sinister figure.

Extraction


Extraction (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

First-time director Sam Hargrave helms an action-thriller so kinetic and breathless, clichés and tired tropes are overshadowed by sheer entertainment value. The premise is familiar: A group of mercenaries is hired by an imprisoned drug lord’s right-hand man (Randeep Hooda) to rescue the drug lord’s teenage son (Rudraksh Jaiswal) from a rival crime boss (Priyanshu Painyuli). But there is a catch: the former drug lord’s assets are actually frozen and so it is impossible to pay the mercenaries in full. Former Special Forces Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) finds his team dropping like flies just when the mission is about to be completed. The action doesn’t stop from here—which will impress those looking for adrenaline-fueled shootouts and hand-to-hand combat.

Most impressive sequence involves an extended tracking shot—beginning from the streets of Dhaka and ending under a bridge. Multiple techniques are employed to create an illusion of an unbroken shot and it is convincing enough. As men pummel one another to deliver jaw-breaking violence, it becomes clear that a lot of thought is put into how to make the action both realistic and beautiful. I enjoyed how there is a certain rhythm when the action must change from trading bullets to using fists, vice-versa. It never makes the mistake of communicating that violence is just all for fun. In fact, there are a number of shots that underline how painful it is to be hit by the buttstock of a rifle, to be choked to death, to receive a bullet in the shoulder. It shows, too, that it is not pleasurable to use your own fists to break someone’s face. Although the action entertains on the surface, the seemingly cartoonish violence is not without consequences.

A sense of humor is not absent either. Crowded streets and tenements contain hundreds of extras—look closely and notice how excited they are to be in a movie. There is a joke about running people over. How supposedly powerful drug lords glare intensely, so far away from the action, when things do not go his way. No one is forced to wink or smile at the camera simply to create low-hanging humor. No buddy jokes despite the ex-soldier having to hang out with a teenager for about half the picture. It is one of those films that you feel the filmmakers having a good time in making their movie, so they needn’t try so hard for a sense of goodness to come through. This is a quality I don’t see often in action films. It just wishes to create a good time and there’s nothing with that.

There are moments of deeper meaning which I wished screenwriter Joe Russo delved into a bit more. While in short-lived shelter, Tyler and the boy, Ovi, get a chance to talk to another. Naturally, the teenager is curious about his rescuer. Ovi’s questions revolve around Tyler’s lifestyle—not how exciting or thrilling it is but how lonely and soul-crushing it must be. Despite all the complex action sequences, a conversation between man and boy is actually the center of the film. And rightfully so. When we meet Tyler, he hides a sadness, guilt, possibly even anger. His animalistic rage is revealed at times when he is pushed to a corner by men who wish to kill him. In this critical scene—a silent scene—between Tyler and Ovi, much is revealed about our protagonist—and the beautiful details do not require words. It is without question there is a heart and brain in “Extraction.”

Those who wish to focus on the big picture—and only the big picture—will claim that the film is composed merely of a series of stunts. I just showed above how this assertion is inaccurate. But taking this type of criticism as is, I then ask, “So what?” It doesn’t require special glasses to realize that these stunts are well done. There are stakes to the action unfolding. And we get to see another part of the world that’s not Chicago, or New York City, or Los Angeles, or (insert European city here)—a place that big action blockbusters seldom visit.

The Final Destination


The Final Destination (2009)
★ / ★★★★

It is apparent that “The Final Destination” is a product of its time, when it was considered “cool” or “hip” to have objects thrown at you in 3D. The fourth entry in the series is the most exhausted and uninspired—surprising because Eric Bress, the screenwriter, and David R. Ellis, the director, also helmed the far superior “Final Destination 2” which is filled to brim with memorable deaths and joyous twists. What is left here is scraps, eighty minutes of laughably bad dialogue, boring death scenes with minimal setup, and characters that are either dull or offensively cliché.

This movie has the nerve to flaunt an opening credits that references previous death scenes in the series. It is almost like a dare for us to compare them to what this picture has to offer—and the competition is not even close. Here, it is obvious that far too much CGI is utilized to the point where, for example, when someone gets impaled by a metal rod through his chest, it does not feel horrifying or shocking, just fake. This approach persists throughout the work, and it is amazing that nobody spoke up and claimed that none of the images on screen are effective. Instead of offering an experience, it becomes a vehicle for special and visual effects.

Here is a first in the series: a completely forgettable premonition sequence. The previous movies really take the time to introduce every element that must come together in order to deliver a jaw-dropping accident (or “accident”—depending on how you see it). There is a sense of timing, patience, a feeling of eeriness and certain doom. We get terrific terrorized reaction shots from those experiencing visions of the future. But in this film, all of these positive qualities are thrown out the window. Why?

We witness multiple crashes in a racetrack, but we don’t feel invested in the pandemonium because it all happens so quickly. Showing a crowd running away, screaming, and causing a stampede is not right in a movie like this. In the predecessors, there is a reason why we are stuck in one place with the characters—a plane, a freeway, a roller coaster—it is meant to create a sense of claustrophobia. These are places we often find ourselves in. The message is made literal: There is no escape from death. Who goes to a racetrack?

Furthermore, it does not help that Bobby Campo, who plays our protagonist Nick, is not a highly expressive performer. Compare his wooden performance to Devon Sawa, A.J. Cook, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead from the first three “Final Destination” films, respectively, and the difference is night and day. I felt as though Campo was half-asleep while filming his scenes. Maybe it is not entirely his fault. It is the director’s job to review a scene, note what does or doesn’t work, and execute the necessary changes. Many scenes here require reshoots due to flat performances, main and supporting alike. At one point, I wondered whether the cast and crew were on an extremely tight schedule. One cannot help but get the impression that something—anything—simply needed to be shot and submitted, to get it over with.

It goes without saying that “The Final Destination” offers a depressing, disposable experience. A part of me is glad it isn’t officially named “Final Destination 4” because the work overall is an embarrassment.

Final Destination 3


Final Destination 3 (2006)
★★ / ★★★★

James Wong is back to direct the third entry of the “Final Destination” series, and although it reaches some highs, the picture is let down by an overly simplistic screenplay. It is a shame because “Final Destination 2” is a step in the right direction: It increases the ante by taking the original idea that those who manage to escape what should be certain deaths will in fact die sooner or later and expanding upon the idea in twisty and thrilling ways. There is not one, not two, but three interesting twists. In this second sequel, there is a neat idea: Photographs provide hints at at how the survivors will die after they escape the horrific roller coaster crash. But the ingenuity stops there. The rest of the time is a waiting game, simply going down the list of who will die next. We already know the “how,” so it is a mistake to go on autopilot.

This picture aims for deaths scenes that are more savage and brutal than its predecessors. The signature dark humor remains, especially when someone drops dead, but I noticed I felt quite badly for the characters we never get a chance to know. The scene in the tanning salon with the cliché narcissistic dumb blondes quickly comes to mind. (Although the transition between tanning beds and coffins made me chuckle.) I think it is because nearly every other scene serves to remind the audience that the teens are about to graduate high school and so what should be a hopeful time is marred by Death’s grip.

Like the first two movies, the third installment’s highlight is its opening scene involving a premonition at an amusement park. This time, we follow nice girl Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a self-proclaimed control freak, as she warns her friends—while undergoing a panic attack herself—that something is about to go horribly wrong with the roller coaster they’re on. There is strong attention to detail: the excitement of the riders, the normal (and abnormal) shaking of the tracks, obstructions that will trigger a Domino Effect, the sheer terror on the teens’ faces as shoulder restraints come off suddenly and the threat of being thrown off their seats becomes a very real possibility, faces smashed in, guts thrown all over the place. It is ugly, horrific, and you cannot look away—even though you want to.

But as the work goes on, especially toward the halfway point, a sense of familiarity starts to take hold. The aforementioned photograph plot device is curious, but it is not enough to create a compelling experience. It is like a joke without a punchline. Instead, the screenplay appears stuck wrestling with bad dialogue. For example, just when we are beginning to think that obnoxious jock Kevin (Ryan Merriman) is not the idiot he passes himself to be in public (he exhibits moments of sensitivity in private), the character claims, “I’m not the total idiot you think I am.” Could it be any more on the nose? Are we meant to laugh?

Unlike the second film that doesn’t try so hard to surpass the original, “Final Destination 3” does. The subtle wind that signals that Death is in the vicinity is turned into all-out hurricane, for example. At one point I wondered if the wind machine was malfunctioning. Surely everyone else around the area is able to notice the sudden gust, not just the tormented girl with the premonitions? It goes to show that in horror films, turning down the dial—this time literal—goes a long way. There are nifty deaths here and there, but the work as a whole does not offer an enveloping, unsettling experience.

Final Destination 2


Final Destination 2 (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★

It doesn’t try so much to outdo the original in superficial ways. Instead, David R. Ellis’ worthy sequel to “Final Destination” respects its predecessor by taking ideas from the source, expanding upon them, and then—this is key—introducing new wrinkles for us to examine. Most of the time sequels attempt to outdo the original in this way: increasing the body count, amping up the violence, and intensifying the gore. While this installment does exactly these things, I counted three twists (which I will not reveal) that play upon what we already know: Death will be coming after the survivors of a freak accident, this time involving a pileup on the freeway.

Viewers will remember this film for the logs falling off a truck which then triggers a chain reaction of sheer, unadulterated mayhem. It is a wonderfully brutal opening scene, almost the exact opposite of the impressive first scene of the film that came before. In the original, our characters are in an enclosed space and we watch the order in which they die following an explosion. The approach feels rather clinical. This time, however, characters sit in their own vehicles while in motion. The method is entirely different. Editing is more pronounced, more purposeful, more confident. It functions on a higher kinetic energy. Blink for a spit-second longer and one is likely to miss a bone-crunching, skin-melting death. It is a wreck one cannot—should not—look away from. Because in this movie, the order of death still matters.

A.J. Cook is Kimberly, a high school student on a road trip with her friends. She is the seer, capable of experiencing premonitions that could cheat Death’s plans… at least for a while. Cook plays the character with utmost conviction, but I never felt as though there is much fight in her. Thus, it is the correct decision to bring back Ali Larter as Clear, one of the survivors of Flight 180 in the former picture. Larter chooses not to play her character as the mousey type this time around. And so we believe Clear has endured hardships that took place after the first movie. It is an interesting decision by screenwriters J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress to divide likability and strength between two characters. In horror films, especially splatterfests, one main character, usually female, possesses these two attributes. I appreciated the difference.

Here is a movie in which the violence paralyzes you. Twice or thrice I caught my jaw drop following a spine-chilling death scene, whether it is someone bring crushed by glass or a person bring sliced clean by barbed wires. I think it is because these death scenes almost always possess a dramatic parabola: the set-up, the false alarm, the climax, the resolution, the irony. Although we do not get to know any character in a meaningful way, the grim sense of humor is so sharp, the material is constantly pushed forward. In modern horror movies, it is uncommon for me to feel like I’m constantly trying to catch up to the screenplay.

“Final Destination 2” offers a good time. The script may be a weak point, but the sheep to be slaughtered are not meant to be articulate. It is all about the craft from behind the camera, the complex but clear choreography in showing the cause and effect of actions (or inaction) of doomed characters, and the breathless pace of a horror picture with numerous surprising ideas. It doesn’t always have to be about the blood. So it holds up upon repeated viewings.

Final Destination


Final Destination (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

James Wong’s “Final Destination” takes the idea of Death coming for souls whose times are up and commits to it all the way. It is not just another Dead Teenager Movie because the concept is explored quite seriously but at the same time the manner in which the victims die is so elaborate and so creative, entertainment is created from a rather grim premise. The material does not need to wink at the audience in hopes that viewers might recognize references from other works that came before. Nor does it need to poke fun of teen stereotypes. The filmmakers are confident that their work is strong enough to forge a path of its own.

Instead of barraging us with gruesome deaths, the screenplay by Glen Morgan, James Wong (who also directs), and Jeffrey Reddick takes its time to establish a sense of foreboding. Where better to start than with Alex (Devon Sawa), a superstitious high school senior who, while still at home, already senses that something might go awry during their flight to Paris. Something about keeping the stickers on the bags. We look at this character and recognize he’s just a tad ridiculous. But Sawa plays him with a straight face throughout and eventually we grow to like the kid even though Alex always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The killer opening sequence aboard the soon-to-be doomed Flight 180 is executed with a certain eerie energy and excitement. One could tell immediately that plenty of thought is put into where the camera is placed when the mood is calm and how the camera moves up and down the aisles when panic begins to take hold. The approach is almost clinical—and it must be because remembering where people sit, for instance, proves to be important during the latter events of the story. From minor turbulence to the terrifying final explosion, this plane sequence is a wonderful exercise in suspense and horror. Viewers tend to remember this movie because of this scene alone; it shows how the entire experience will be like.

But because the bar is set so high early on, a few of the deaths that befall the remaining seven “lucky” survivors fall short by comparison (Sawa, Ali Larter, Kerr Smith, Kristen Cloke, Seann William Scott, Amanda Detmer, Chad Donella). I enjoyed, however, that there is variety in the approach: some meet blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ends while others experience extremely painful and slow passing like being choked to death in the bathtub. Most haunting are those in which we hear a character’s final breath. The camera lingers for a beat or two and it works.

“Final Destination” introduces a formidable villain: one that cannot be rendered incapacitated by hitting it with a bat or a wrench, one that cannot be stabbed or shot dead. Nor can one run over it with a truck or speedboat. It can be outsmarted… but only for a while it seems. The premise captures the imagination. Notice there is no subplot to distract. Supporting characters are kept at a bare minimum. It simply takes one concept and plays with it enough in order to earn and maintain our attention from start to finish.

The Core


The Core (2003)
★ / ★★★★

Science fiction films need not be both fiercely intelligent and savagely entertaining, but director Jon Amiel’s “The Core” is neither. It boasts a running time of one hundred thirty minutes, but the experience feels at least twice that. The reason is because the movie appears to be content in being a flat, soporific exercise in visual pageantry. It has aged like milk—a good example of why strong ideas and execution must take precedence over flashy special and visual effects. Consider: the story involves an apocalyptic situation—the Earth’s core has stopped spinning which has led to bizarre occurrences such as 32 people dropping dead at the same time, sudden violent swarm of birds enveloping London, superstorms causing unimaginable devastation in Rome. And yet despite all the razzle-dazzle, the movie lacks genuine excitement, tension, or horror. We are supposed to be seeing the end of the world, but our expressions do not change. An exception is when we cringe at the terribly cliché dialogue between scientists and astronauts. Surely it takes considerable effort to make smart people sound dead dull and stupid. There are at least three instances in which I guessed the next line to be uttered word-by-word. (Even the jokes fall flat.) Words shared among the characters are meant to be forgotten the moment the next scene begins. And so when they meet gruesome fates during their journey to the center of the planet, we cannot be bothered to care. Starring Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, and Stanley Tucci. Based on the screenplay by Cooper Layne and John Rogers.

Waves


Waves (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film for teenagers that does not make the mistake of condescending to its target audience. Put this right alongside commercialized coming-of-age films meant to capture how it is like to be a high school student in modern America and it shines—so brightly in fact that most of its contemporaries would fade into the background. The reason is because writer-director Trey Edward Shults is not afraid to show real consequences. In this movie, conflict is never solved by delivering rousing speeches or grand gestures in front or a crowd with an upbeat soundtrack playing in the background. It requires its subjects to stop, to be silent, to go deep into contemplation, and to really push themselves to make a change. It’s not easy.

The story takes a magnifying glass on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a senior wrestler with an excellent chance of earning a full college scholarship. He has one more season before graduation. In the opening minutes, we observe his daily routine, how he pushes his mind and body to their absolute limit. His father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), ensures that he does. And should Tyler ever strays from that path, even for a second, Ronald is there to correct the mistake of his son taking his eyes off the prize.

It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the father domineering, but the beauty of the screenplay is that it plays fair with all of its main characters—even the stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry) who is less in control when it comes to discipline and the sister (Taylor Russell) who is present but has more of an observant role. There is no one-dimensional character here and all of the actors deliver layered and textured performances.

What I loved most about the picture is its willingness to show its subjects in real pain. I am not referring to characters simply responding to superficial conflicts required by the plot. The writer-director allows his characters to express how they feel on their own time with little regard to pacing. Most of the time, words are utilized to communicate. Notice how the dialogue flows, how words employed sound natural. But when an emotion is so painful, so frustrating, so unimaginable, still, Shults is there to capture his subjects’ misery. At times one finds himself or herself so helpless, there is little left to do other than to let out a wail or a whimper.

I think people whose families have undergone great crises will relate to this film—not because of the plot but because of its emotional and psychological landmarks, specifically traumas that stem from staring at crises in the face and enduring. One of the themes involves an action having a significant ripple effect, how one action is able to excavate issues laying just underneath the topsoil. Clearly, the story is not just about an African-American high school student who feels extreme pressure to perform and achieve success. It is about family dynamics and how each member influences one another. The work is not interested in blame, simply observation.

The structure of storytelling when it comes to coming-of-age movies rarely surprise me because most tend to follow a similar formula. “Waves” surprised me, but I will not detail why. I will leave it to you to experience and I hope it will also take your breath away, just as it did mine.