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.