Gridlocked


Gridlocked (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

High body count action-thriller “Gridlocked” delivers the expected from the genre, but it falls flat nearly every time it tries to pull off a surprise. The premise is cheeky: narcissistic and troubled movie star (Cody Hackman) who assaulted a paparazzo is assigned by the court to shadow a cop (Dominic Purcell) as good faith that he means to change his ways. In reality, it is a PR strategy to keep the actor out of jail so he can continue making his next blockbuster. The serious cop and flashy clown pair is nothing new, but screenwriters Rob Robol and Allan Ungar (who directs) go for the laughs and commit to them even though a good number of jokes are made-for-TV fluff. At first, the cop is not keen on babysitting but the more the duo spend time with one another—well, you know how it goes. The centerpiece is the action: a mysterious shadow group (Stephen Lang) breaks into a police training facility for… something not worth waiting for; the picture takes more than half of its nearly two-hour running time to reveal the motivation of its standard slithering villain. Action sequences are occasionally well-choreographed and exciting. Although there is no convincing danger, I found myself wishing to know what would happen next. Comic touches which set the initial tone are relegated behind loud and busy shootouts eventually. And when they do return to the foreground in the action-heavy latter half, they feel out of place. There is an undeniable lack of discipline in tone.

Queen & Slim


Queen & Slim (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Taking inspiration from real-life events of police shooting unarmed African-Americans across the country, Melina Matsoukas’ debut picture “Queen & Slim” simmers with anger, but that is not what makes the work interesting. Instead of unleashing its fury, it allows the audience to witness and digest the injustices of racial profiling and murder. It is a powerful movie, certainly a sad one, that does not need to shout in order to highlight the importance of what it has to impart.

Unnamed man (henceforth “Slim” played by Daniel Kaluuya) and woman (Jodie Turner-Smith as “Queen”) go on a blind date after meeting on Tinder. On their way home, they are stopped by a police officer who claims that Slim has failed to execute a turn signal and exhibited some erratic driving. While this is true, it is clear that the cop wishes to bust the black man for something, anything. Without a warrant, the racist cop rummages through the trunk. The situation quickly escalates which leads to Queen being shot in the leg. Out of self-defense, Slim grabs the gun from the officer and shoots him dead. The couple decide to flee Cleveland, Ohio.

The six-night manhunt for Queen & Slim is executed with specific vision. It is not interested in glorifying violence by showing elaborate chases, gunfights, and the like. It is, however, curious about getting to know the couple as complex people who come from vastly different backgrounds. For instance, extended dialogue is presented to us like flirtatious poetry as Queen, initially dismissive of Slim, learns to respect the young man she assumed to be just another brother who wished to get in her pants; Slim, meanwhile, begins to recognize a possible future with Queen. The movie is successful both as a crime drama and romance. The screenplay by Lena Waithe juggles both at the same time, never dropping one for the other at any moment.

The central couple is multidimensional, and so are the supporting characters—however brief we spend time with them. A few standouts include Queen’s uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) who lives with prostitutes with surprising heart and insight about loneliness, a gas station attendant who does not blink once when a gun is pointed at his face, a teenager named Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) who idolizes the outlaws, and the caucasian couple (Chloë Sevigny, Flea) who are aware of the bounty for Slim & Queen but decides to help them anyway. Each interaction is different because every single person encountered has a specific personality and perspective regarding what occurred in Ohio. Everybody has an understanding and appreciation of what has been going on between cops and black people across the country.

Comparisons to Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie & Clyde” makes sense to an extent, but “Queen & Slim” is more modern and it possesses an identity of its own. There is something alluring in how Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are able to harness their chemistry, beginning from a place of awkwardness and distrust then eventually ending somewhere among loyalty, respect, and devotion. Their physical journey can be criticized for having one too many lucky breaks, but I believed their emotional journey completely. While I would have preferred a less blatant ending (which I do not think fits the overall tone of the film), I could find some justification why it was necessary.

Teen Spirit


Teen Spirit (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Kid Like Jake


A Kid Like Jake (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

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

Bodied


Bodied (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

Monstrum


Monstrum (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

In an action-horror movie like “Monstrum,” it is all too easy to make the mistake of relying on parading a giant hairy beast and the carnage that inevitably follows, but director Huh Jong-ho, who co-wrote the screenplay with Heo-dam, understands what makes horror movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and Ridley Scott’s “Alien” so effective: It is not enough to show the boogeyman and what it can do. In order to build suspense, there must be a convincing enough backstory that the viewers can latch onto. And so when chaos runs rampant, we care and do not get lost in pandemonium. And, boy, does this movie excel in showing havoc.

The story is set in 16th century Korea during King Jungjong’s fragile reign (Park Hee-soon). Not only are citizens destitute and hungry, they are living in constant fear due to rumors that a monster is living in the woods—rumors that Prime Minister Woon (Lee Kyeong-yeong) started because he wishes to take the throne for himself. He hopes that the rumor, combined with the growing unrest, will be enough to usurp the king. But the monster is far from imaginary. There are two types of corpses coming out of the woods: those in pieces and those with boils. Only one of these groups has been in direct contact with the monster. But what of the other?

Here is a movie that clearly wants to be an entertaining action flick. There is silly humor like adult men falling over one another (Kim Myung-min, Kim In-kwon), there is a cute sort of romance between a country girl (Lee Hyeri) and a young warrior (Choi Woo-sik), there is mystery in terms of what really goes on out there in the woods, and there is suspense when we are given answers… because answers are not always black and white. I preferred its darker side, but I appreciated its attempt to entertain everybody. Despite the title, the monster itself is not the most evil creature on screen (a case can be made it isn’t evil at all) but rather the power-hungry folks who scheme, exploit, betray, ending lives for nothing. The creature simply wishes to survive; it just happens to be higher up on the food chain.

Although the creature is made using CGI rather than practical effects, the technique works because it is kept hidden for so long. Once it is revealed, it is appropriately intimidating: its size, the noises it makes, how it eats people whole. Notice we rarely get a glimpse of its eyes. Regardless of its gargantuan stature, it moves swiftly. It is alert, a top hunter. The writers are correct to give the monster a limitation: a poor eyesight. And so it must adapt accordingly. And so do the characters. Surprisingly, even this supposedly terrible being is given a backstory—so efficient is this one flashback that we come to empathize with it.

I could easily rip apart a movie like “Monstrum,” but it offers such a good time that its weaknesses—schizophrenic tone, character relationships not given enough time to blossom (a few not believable at all), occasional lack common sense—end up buried under sheer entertainment value. It knows what it wants to be and proud of it. I wish more action creature-features, especially those from the west, would learn to be as willing to take risks and trust that some will land given the assumption that viewers are smart and receptive to pure escapism.

Singularity


Singularity (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another movie brazen enough to end without a third act, but that is the least of its problems. Robert Kouba’s “Singularity” tells a story that involves machines directly causing the eradication of humans with the help of an inventor (John Cusack) who wished “to solve all the world’s problems” using advanced artificial intelligence, but it is far from an engaging morality tale with the necessary highs and lows, twists and turns, and bitter ironies. Instead, we experience the once populated planet through the eyes of a bland young man named Andrew (Julian Schaffner) who miraculously wakes up 97 years after the A.I. takeover. In the middle is a deadly dull the romance between Andrew and Calia (Jeannine Michèle Wacker), a survivor in search of the last human outpost, but the couple is not at all interesting together or apart. We are introduced to the strong and independent Calia, only to soften and wilt once in the arms of Andrew. Prepare to roll your eyes and to check your watch constantly. The painfully slow pacing of their so-called courtship brings to mind movies designed for tweens which contrasts greatly against what should be an intelligent and urgent parable. Its emotions are as fake as the laughable computer generated explosions we encounter during the picture’s generic opening minutes. Written for the screen by Robert Kouba and Sebastian Cepeda.

Time Trap


Time Trap (2017)
★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freddy vs. Jason


Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
★★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

Jason X


Jason X (2001)
★ / ★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday


Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)
★ / ★★★★

For a much better time, watch Jack Sholder’s “The Hidden” instead.

It appears that the screenwriters of the ninth “Friday the 13th” installment, Jay Huguely and Dean Lorey, has learned nothing from the downright awful “V: A New Beginning.” That is, it is not at all a good idea to take out or hide away the true Jason Voorhees, the unstoppable killer sporting a hockey mask, because he is the movie; it is demanded he be front and center. In an attempt to explain this iconic villain’s invincibility, and to provide so-called closure for the series (the final shot suggests otherwise), those at the helm take on several plot contortions that do not fit the mold of the slasher subgenre. What results is a confusing, limping mess—laughable, ridiculous, interminable. About halfway through I caught myself thinking, “This is not a Jason movie.”

Jason’s body (Kane Hodder) is blown to pieces. This is not a spoiler because it is presented to us in the first scene before the opening credits. So, what we come to know as Jason’s body is rendered useless. But the writers have a “brilliant” idea (read: idiotic)—Jason’s body is just meat, something worn… which means it can be shed. For the real Jason, you see, is a small demonic creature that can jump from one person to another and take control. Less than twenty minutes in, the picture has turned into a creature feature—and so it must be evaluated as such.

The creature itself does not look impressive. It looks rubbery and gooey, but director Adam Marcus is so busy placing emphasis on fourth-rate action—shootings, stabbings, screaming, scrambling—that he neglects to show, with a keen eye and patience, the supposed true form of Jason. I felt the director himself is embarrassed of how the creature looks and so he attempts to hide it as often as possible. It is alien-looking, certainly bizarre, but far from the quality of terrifying and memorable creatures in pictures like Ridley Scott’s “Alien” or John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” It is curious that the form of the monster isn’t spectacular, or even mildly impressive, because the “Friday the 13th” franchise has been financially successful. Where did the money go? There is no excuse for such D-grade special effects.

Jolts are elementary and often substandard. Anybody who has seen a horror movie will not be surprised by any of the jump scares. When you think something will appear suddenly in a dark corner, it does. When you suspect a person has been taken over by the creature, he is. Cue shots of a character standing by a window and suddenly the window breaks and she is grabbed from behind. There is nothing inspirational or original in these would-be scares. Also notice that when an action sequence is supposed to be urgent, there is a laziness to the camera work. Actors move briskly and hit their marks but since no enthusiasm is radiating from behind the camera, the final product looks and feels incredibly slow. There is no semblance of tension.

“Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday” is severely misguided. The series is not defined by story or particularly deep character development. It is about giving the audience what they come to expect from a slasher film and altering the formula just a little (like adding supernatural elements as found in the worthy “VI: Jason Lives”)—even if by the end of the day it fails. This entry is dead on arrival because the writers willingly place their work against a decade’s worth of lore. Couple this disadvantage with a lack of craft from behind the camera as well as enthusiasm to genuinely entertain, what results is a new low. I found it be depressing every step of the way.

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan


Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)
★★ / ★★★★

This is a strange one. A case can be made that “Jason Takes Manhattan,” written and directed by Rob Hedden, is actually composed of two pictures. The first half takes place on a cruise ship in and around Crystal Lake, and the second half unfolds in New York City. The former is technically superior in every way compared to the latter, but the Manhattan chapters are more fun in that, as a whole, it is a minefield of unintentional humor and it becomes increasingly ridiculous by the minute. (The final confrontation takes place in the sewers. Is it going for gross-out horror?) I do not recommend the picture for casual audiences, but for fans of “Friday the 13th” series, I believe it does the job.

Collectively, this group of soon-to-be high school graduates to be slaughtered by Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder) command stronger star power compared to the cast of previous installments. There is Jensen Daggett, playing the central protagonist Rennie who is still dealing with childhood trauma involving a drowning; Scott Reeves as nice guy Sean who is pushed by his father to take on a career he has little to no interest in; Sharlene Martin as prom queen and mean girl Tamara; and Martin Cummins as Wayne the aspiring filmmaker. Each one has a memorable face and personality—which makes for an enjoyable watch. It is curious, too, that this time around the picture is in no hurry to kill off its characters. In this franchise, it expected for characters to be introduced and only to be gutted five to ten minutes later.

The change of scenery from the usual cabins and camping grounds to a small cruise ship is a welcome change. The reason is because there are more opportunities for claustrophobic shots, particularly in cramped rooms and hallways. The engine room is damp and murky, offering plenty of hazards. Tighter shots underscore the sheer size of undead Jason; there is reason to scream because not only is the threat credible, there is also not much room for escape. And it isn’t exactly comforting when there’s a murderer nearby for one simply cannot run or drive to the nearest police station. (Not that they’re of any help in slasher films.) As usual, the violence is brutal, gory, and in-your-face. However, there are a few off-screen deaths for the sake of changing things around. (Particularly alarming is the way one of the supporting characters is exterminated. Maybe the performer had another project she had to attend to?)

The Manhattan portrayed in this film leaves plenty of laughs for those with an open mind. Notice that when New Yorkers lay eyes on a massive masked man who is dripping wet with seaweed covering his clothes, they remain rather unfazed. Just the usual psycho walking about. They are only bothered when Jason makes physical contact with them or when another person is picked up and thrown across the subway. It is also a bit of a miracle that it is only ever dirty outdoors. Almost everyone outside is a punk or a drug addict. It is so reductive, it is impossible not to laugh at what’s being shown on screen. Yet I had a difficult time in telling whether it is meant to be taken seriously. It’s quite straight-faced. The dialogue offers few jokes, if any.

Still, I enjoyed it for what it was. I didn’t give a hoot about Rennie’s aquaphobia, but I found myself wanting her to survive. Though I must say that the film is averse to sweet moments. Rennie and Sean like each other outside of the sexual realm. And yet when they kiss, the tender moment is immediately disturbed by the presence of Jason. But when a sexual scene involving other characters is front and center, breasts and buttocks and all, it is allowed to unfold for however long. I was annoyed by this, even angered by it for some time. Is the message supposed to be that no strings attached sex is allowed but not a meaningful and genuine connection between two young people? I found that attitude to be far uglier than seeing rotting Jason unmasked.

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood


Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)
★ / ★★★★

Introducing a heroine with psychic powers is actually near the bottom of the list regarding the problems that plague “New Blood,” yet another limp sequel directly following one of the highlights of the series. In the superior “VI: Jason Lives,” it is established that Jason Voorhees is a walking corpse and so to have a telekinetic protagonist square off against the undead this time around is not much of a leap. I happily accepted this new direction, but, as always, what matters most is the execution—how well this avenue is explored given a set of familiar, or possibly new, rules.

The final product is a near-disaster. The screenplay is written by Daryl Haney and Manuel Fidello, clearly influenced by Brian De Palma’s “Carrie.” There is visual and special effects galore, but the writers fail to answer a basic question: What makes Tina (Lar Park-Lincoln) a compelling character outside of her supernatural abilities? A deeper question: How is Tina a worthy opponent for Jason? These two question go answered until the end credits and so what we are left with is run-of-the-mill slashing and hacking. No tension, no suspense, no thrills.

As in “V: A New Beginning,” it is a struggle to remember the names of the friends in the neighboring cabin who gather to throw a surprise birthday party. (As expected, their friend and his girlfriend never make it to the celebration.) Only two are standouts: Nick (Kevin Spirtas) as Tina’s earnest romantic interest and posh pearl necklace-wearing Melissa (Susan Jennifer Sullivan) who throws herself all over Nick, not getting the hint that he does not like her at all—not just as a potential romantic partner but as a person in general. Nick is written in the most boring way possible, simply created to look concerned for Tina when she’s agitated and to protect her when the masked killer shows up. This nice guy character is completely unnecessary because his constant interruptions delay the inevitable battle between Tina and Jason.

Jason does not get a taste of Tina’s telekinetic powers until the final fifteen minutes—a mistake considering the fact that the point of the movie is to showcase the clash of supernatural phenomena. I enjoyed the crispness of the visual effects for its time, particularly when buildings are torn apart little by little and eventually collapse. Park-Lincoln does what she can with the role. I sensed she possesses dramatic chops, especially during scenes when Tina is in a room with a psychiatrist, Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser), who promises treatment in regards to her emotional imbalance but actually only there to take advantage of her and her abilities. However, the screenplay possesses only a superficial idea of trauma stemming from childhood. So the performer is not given much to work with other than to look flustered as people around her die.

“Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood,” directed by John Carl Buechler, is a misleading title on all fronts. The story does not take place during Friday the 13th. There is nothing new about it—not in terms of characterization, plot surprises, or ways in which blood is delivered. And what does it mean by “New Blood”? I wondered if it referred to Tina replacing Tommy for the role of central protagonist, the latter terrorized by Jason when he was only twelve. Or does it refer to the new batch of teens to be skewered and slaughtered? In any case, halfway through I realized I missed Tommy. He may not have a special ability but at least he was interesting.