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.

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.

The Addams Family


The Addams Family (2019)
★ / ★★★★

This adaptation of “The Addams Family” is dead in the water. Clearly lacking imagination, surprises, and energy, it appears that screenwriters Matt Lieberman and Pamela Pettler have little to no understanding of what makes the Addams special. (I’m not convinced they were aware that the source material was meant to be a satire because this movie seems reluctant to take risks.) Yes, every member of the clan is in fact a caricature, but each person is not given a brand of humor or even (a black) heart. Instead, the movie relies on puns throughout its entire ninety-minute duration and it is stuck regurgitating one expository sequence after another. Content-wise it is boring and so are its visuals.

The animation is truly ugly to look at—like some cheap knockoff Dreamworks animation. Take note of the Addams mansion: it looks just like any other abandoned haunted house in a generic animated film. Cue the dark clouds and thunderstorms. It is supposed to be big, palatial even, but we see no more than five rooms. And in each room there is nothing especially memorable—not one macabre figure or creepy painting. Instead, the film busies itself with delivering unfunny visuals that it forgets to establish a believable atmosphere.

Not even the character designs are inspired. You look at Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) or Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) and see animated models wearing clothes. Their eyes, postures, or the way they move command no personality. When in action—like Wednesday being whisked away by a tree branch or Pugsley maniacally throwing explosives at his father—observe how their expressions are devoid of even the slightest changes. It’s like watching mannequins… only mannequins appear to look creepier the longer one stares at them. These models look like first drafts that require further revisions in order to become alluring in a darkly comic way. I don’t think children would find the characters enticing in the least.

Its plot is also forgettable: Reality TV host Margaux Needler (voiced by Allison Janney) wishes to sell houses, but since the Addams mansion is such an eyesore (she prefers bright colors like pink and yellow), she takes it upon herself to remodel their gothic home free of charge. In order to be liked by their neighbors, Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) welcome the obnoxious homemaking guru into their home. In a nutshell, the movie attempts to impart lessons regarding acceptance—that it is all right to be weird or different. But it comes off as trite and disingenuous because the material fails to show examples of why negative stereotypes or prejudice can be harmful or flat out wrong. The movie offers not one heartfelt scene. It is because it possesses no emotional intelligence.

I think films like “The Addams Family,” directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, should not be shown to children because it has no entertainment value, just emptiness and noise in order to pass the time. Here is a strange family ostracized by their community. And the Addams are also guilty of self-isolation. Why not explore these ideas in meaningful ways? Aren’t the writers adults capable of complex thinking? Instead, the material inspires its viewers to watch passively. The bar for animated pictures has been raised considerably over the past two decades and what this work offers is simply not good enough.

The Sun is Also a Star


The Sun is Also a Star (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Daniel (Charles Melton) the poet believes in love, but Natasha (Yara Shahidi) the aspiring data scientist reduces the idea as molecular interactions occurring in the brain. So a proposal: Over the course of a single day, Daniel would prove that love exists by getting Natasha to fall in love with him—despite the fact that they had met less than an hour ago. It goes without saying that “The Sun is Also a Star,” based on the novel by Nicola Yoon and adapted to screen by Tracy Oliver, proudly wears its heart on its sleeve. Naturally, love must win in a story like this. After all, the target audience is young adults who believe deep down that love is the great solution. But the real question is this: Is the journey to that conclusion worth it?

I don’t believe it is. The material does not provide good enough reasons why Natasha and Daniel are worth following together or apart. It isn’t the performers’ fault: Shahidi and Melton share good chemistry even though not a single person will be convinced that they are portraying high school seniors precisely due to their looks, how they carry themselves in movement, and how they appear to be much wiser than the words on the script. When the camera goes for the close-up, the pair hit their marks and are able to provide the necessary emotions in order to create at least a semblance of conflict that the screenplay fails to provide.

This is bizarre because the movie is strangely plot-driven despite the fact that its story unfolds over twenty-four hours. Natasha’s family is set to be deported to Jamaica the day after unless she is able to find somebody who could put on hold or reverse a judge’s decision. Meanwhile, Daniel, son of South Korean immigrants, is scheduled to attend an interview with an alumnus from Dartmouth University so that he could get a letter of recommendation. His parents have chosen for him to become a doctor, but he wants to be a poet. Natasha and Daniel’s chance meeting—or is it destiny, as the film argues?—fails to become thoroughly involving because we are often reminded of the time. Is Daniel late for that all-important interview? Are Natasha’s parents getting worried back home because she still hasn’t packed her belongings?

In addition, you can bet that every time the potential lovers arrive at a new spot and sit down, a would-be compelling revelation is about to thrown on our laps within two minutes. On the surface, these life lessons come across as wise. But think about it: If the person imparting these pieces of knowledge has been aware all along, then why is he or she still written as conflicted? Thus, the drama is a sham. The screenplay defies reason and common sense so credit goes to director Ry Russo-Young for still being able to maintain our interest at least some of the time.

I enjoyed looking at the movie. It is earnest and pretty. We see different spots of New York City even though the place is filtered through the lens of a fantasy. (In reality, NYC is grimier, louder, and a whole lot busier.) But the way it is shot serves the romantic nature of the story. And I did enjoy the actors; I wish for more people of color leading in romantic films. But the screenplay is all over the place, without question too saccharine for its own good. There is a compelling story about assimilation buried here. But the screenwriter couldn’t be bothered to excavate it.

Dark Light


Dark Light (2019)
★ / ★★★★

For a movie that offers plenty of strange noises in a farmhouse in the middle of the night and investigations in the dark using only a flashlight, Padraig Reynolds’ “Dark Light” commands no tension, suspense, or horror. It is strange and highly disappointing because the work is written and directed by the same filmmaker who helmed the little-seen gem “Rites of Spring,” a hybrid between crime thriller and horror, so confident in what it is and what it wishes to accomplish. This picture, however, is an obvious giant step backward, serving the audience a minefield of boredom and clichés on top of characters more uninteresting than tap water.

The plot is standard but not without potential to genuinely entertain. Annie (Jessica Madsen) and her daughter, Emily (Opal Littleton), recently move into Annie’s childhood home following a divorce (Ed Brody), a death in the family, and a mental breakdown. To Annie, the relocation from the city is a chance to start anew with her young child. But it seems that the mother’s once happy home is no longer. Doors open on their own. There is scratching and scraping noises in the walls. There are lights that turn on and off out in the cornfield. Emily begins to suffer memory problems. The mystery is laid thick and heavy, but not one of its elements manages to bleed into other territories—surprise, terror, a sense of impending doom—other than mild curiosity.

I became convinced that even the writer-director is aware of this. For a while, the story unfolds in flashbacks and flash forwards in order create a semblance of urgency. Instead, what we get is distraction and, eventually, annoyance because high-priority questions go unanswered for so long to the point where we no longer care. And when questions do get answers or solutions, notice it is almost always action-driven and noisy rather than thought-driven and silent. A more equal mixture might have been more appropriate given the story’s setting. Clearly, this is a sci-fi horror hybrid that wishes to impress ostentatiously when playing it simple is more effective.

Further, observe closely when Annie inspects areas she suspects an intruder to be hiding in. She is written to move like a soldier rather than as a mother who is afraid for her and her child’s safety. (She has no military background whatsoever.) The intent, I suppose, is to create a heroine who is worth rooting for. But it seems Reynolds did not get the memo that it makes for a far more interesting watch to create a protagonist who is tough on the inside rather than outside—and then allowing that inner strength to shine through. It certainly would have challenged Madsen more—who seems game at whatever the script wishes to throw at her.

“Dark Light” lacks a more elegant, light-handed screenplay. Because it fails to introduce enough wrinkles to an already familiar template, the result is boring, uninspired, and forgettable. Even the relationship between former spouses rings false. Feel the impersonality of their conversations surrounding their child. You get a sense that the actors have got their lines pat but not the emotions and the history of having lived and loved together once. This relationship is robotic and so is the movie. It’s a waste of time.

Code 8


Code 8 (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

At one point in the film, a young girl asks her father if she was going to be given away because she has started to exhibit superpowers. It is, after all, the pattern she sees on television: Those with supernatural abilities are feared and so the non-Powered do what they can in order to maintain their superiority. This is the universe of “Code 8,” based on the story and directed by Jeff Chan, written for the screen by Chris Pare, an ambitious sci-fi action-drama that takes risks. It is willing to put the humanity of its characters on the forefront and the flashy special and visual effects serving as support. What results is a work that may not be A-level adrenaline-fueled non-stop action, but it is nonetheless good entertainment for those who crave a different approach in telling a familiar story.

In a fictional city that brings to mind diverse Los Angeles, Connor (Robbie Amell) decides to take a job with a group of thieves (Stephen Amell, Laysla De Oliveira, Vlad Alexis) who serves under a drug lord (Greg Bryk) in order to get quick surgery money for his dying mother (Kari Matchett). Connor is considered an Electric due to his abilities and so he proves to be most critical in high-stake heists. Notice how we spend nearly equal time with Connor and his mother as well as Connor and his newfound team. And before we see the first job executed, we are provided crystal clear reasons, overt and subtle, how the protagonist is driven to financial desperation. And so despite the fact that he is working for the bad guys, and in some ways he, too, is a bad guy, we root for him and the no-good bunch to get away with their plans. We have an appreciation of Connor’s personal and professional lives, so we cannot help but to feel invested.

There is a certain irony to some of the abilities we come across. For instance, it is fresh that a character with super strength turns out to be a mute—loud in action but silent with words. Under the hands of a writer with lower level imagination, the material could have been just another action flick with characters who happen to have superpowers. Instead, I felt as though Pare is a big fan of the “X-Men” comics. Right from opening credits, for example, there is already commentary regarding left- and right-wing attitudes toward illegal immigrants. Within ten seconds, the work is able to communicate that it is going to be an Us versus Them tale.

It is the correct decision to keep special and visual effects at a minimum—as impressive as they are. I enjoyed that the police employ magnificent drones and how robots are utilized as tools for the frontline. Although created by technical wizardry, we have feel the weight and power of these machines. When robots jump from the drone and land on the street, they wield a fearsome presence. And so when a Powered decides to run, it is a survival response that makes complete sense. How can you go up against something seemingly indestructible and utterly unfeeling? The action scenes are calculated, used sparingly but effectively.

Relationships among the many colorful characters are not explored enough. Connor and Garrett, the leader of the thieves, are provided a sort of student-teacher connection, but the idea is thrown away just as quickly. It is expected that the student surpasses the teacher eventually, especially in a story of this kind, but we are not given that potentially important arc that leads to catharsis. Another potentially interesting angle is Connor’s bond with an unexpected Healer. The latter serves as a reminder of the former’s humanity, but their connection is quite lukewarm. These two examples do not take off in terms of meaningful character development—which drags down an otherwise terrific movie.

Some may claim that ideas overtaking action in sci-fi action picture is a handicap. I disagree; I would rather have ideas shine brightly than to have to sit through another loud, endless parade of noise with no nourishment for the mind. “Code 8” takes familiar superhero tropes and shakes them a bit. In parts it reminded me of Tim Kring’s wonderful first season of the TV series “Heroes.” I believed its universe and by the end I wanted to know more about the broken characters who lived.