Sunday, December 22, 2019

Sixteen Things That Annoy Me About "The Last Jedi"

This past Friday, I sat through a corporate event for the privilege of watching the latest corporate Star Wars movie: The Rise of Skywalker. How apropos.

To prepare for this, I re-watched The Last Jedi, which re-assured my unpopular opinion that the movie isn't terrible. In fact, if you're one of those people who thinks that TLJ is the worst Star Wars movie, then I'm afraid that your aesthetic is broken and we really can't be friends.

Because, for all it's fuck ups, at least The Last Jedi isn't a color-by-numbers soft reboot of A New Hope like The Farce Awakens was, nor is it a well intentioned, but otherwise artistically-bankrupt, pile of garbage like The Phantom Men-Ass, Attack of the Clowns or Revenge of the Shit.

But to paraphrase Yoda: "a perfect film, it is not." After my re-watch I noted sixteen things that ranged from irksome to downright idiotic. Granted, some of these are kinda nit-picky but they all take me out of the film in some way.

So, strap yourselves in, folks...we're about to make the jump into hyper-waste.

(16) The First Order Reigns...In Your Mom 

This one's actually a carry-over from my rant about The Force Awakens, which I'll just repeat right here...

"What exactly is The Resistance? And who are the First Order? When we last left the Rebels, they'd struck a decisive blow against the Empire. We felt content that the story was told and the good guys had won the day. So, what the hell happened in the galaxy over the past thirty / forty years?!? 

"Maybe the remnants of the Imperial fleet retreated to some distant corner of the galaxy, re-branded themselves and eventually came back with a vengeance. And maybe the New Republic, weary of conflict, just let them do their thing, underscoring the dangers of capitulation. Maybe the Resistance sprung up because Leia recognized the impending threat and could see where things were headed.

"Unfortunately, everything I just typed is an assumption. I've never read any supplemental Star Wars books and I flat out refuse to. Frankly, if I gotta buy and then read an effin' novel just to give this movie some badly-needed context, then things are clearly flawed."

The sad fact of the matter is: the most interesting part of this story, I.E. the rise of the First Order and the corruption of Ben Solo, has already happened by this point and what we're getting now just feels like table scraps.

Back when I reviewed The Force Awakens I wrote the following:

"Yeah, yeah...I know, I know...we're just getting started and it's likely that these questions and many more will be answered in the next installment."

Ah, 2015. It was a more innocent time for me. Poor, naive sap...

I didn't know it at the time but The Last Jedi would brazenly double down on these vagaries. In fact, the gorram title crawl has the audacity to declare that "THE FIRST ORDER REIGNS."  But why? How? In light of the good guys blowing the shit outta Starkiller Base, this is particularly baffling.

Since these sequel  movies have given us zero context and stakes, the First Order is less a concrete threat and more of a generic fabrication designed to validate the existence of Disney-sponsored Star Wars product.

Which leads me to my next point...

(15) The First Order? More Like The WORST Order

Kylo Ren is my favorite sequel trilogy character because he's a parody of edgelord Star Wars dudebros who worship Dark Side shit. And I'm all about making fun of sad fucks who fetishisize villains over heroes.

The only problem is that everyone in the First Order is equally pathetic. Hux is a complete ass-hat and there's nothing scary or intimidating about him at all. In fact, the only Resistance officer with any gravitas, Captain Canady, well-played by Mark Lewis Jones, gets dispatched almost immediately. Pissing away such a great character is a pretty clear indicator that Rian Johnson isn't concerned with giving us any intimidating villains.

And, let's face it, a movie like this is only as good as its bad guys. Hey, I don't mind if one or two of them are depicted as mooks, but there's zero tension if every one of them are a bunch of incompetent yahoos.

(14) Finn the Forgotten 

I know I'm supposed to judge a movie based on what it did as opposed to what I wanted it to do but, in Finn's case, I really can't help speculating. In my opinion, Rian Johnson had 152 minutes to explore Finn's character and he didn't even try.

I really liked Finn in the first movie. He went AWOL from the First Order because he hated what he was being asked to do and he was also a bit of a scaredy-cat. Despite his clear attraction to Rey he was still willing to walk away from her because of shame and cowardice but, ultimately, he came back because he clearly has feelings for her.

In fact, as soon as Finn "comes to" in The Last Jedi, the first word out of his mouth is "Rey!" Clearly she's paramount in his thoughts, soooo...why not let him go find her?

How about this: Finn discovers that all troopers have L'il Anakin-style 'splody homing beacons in their noggins, which is how the First Order is tracking the Resistance. So he goes on a solo mission to try and remove it and /or find Rey to warn her of danger. Somewhere along the way he gets captured by Phasma, which would have given Johnson the perfect opportunity to explore their adversarial relationship as well as his origins.

But nope, instead, his quest it undone by a superfluous, hitherto unknown partner and then gets side-tracked in a pointless sub-plot. What a waste!

(13) Luke: "How Did You Find Me?" Rey: "Um...Google Maps?"

Does anyone else think that Luke's reaction to Rey's appearance on the island is a tad "methinks thou dost protest too much?"

Look, all I'm saying is that someone put the missing map piece in R2's memory banks...and it wasn't Ponda Baba.

(12) ♬♪ "Your Best Friend's Dead and Your Gonna Say 'M'eh' Now" / "Hey, Ya...Hey, Ya...Your Best Friend's Dead!" ♫♩

Luke chucking his lightsaber away is a level of subversion that makes sense to me. But as soon as he  hears that his sister is in dire straits (the condition, not the band) and his best friend is dead, I'd like to think that he'd march right back, shoo the porgs away, pick up his lazer sword and spring into action. If not at that point than certainly when R2 replays Leia's original holographic plea to Obi-Wan.

After years of wallowing in defeat, it makes sense that Luke is a bitter, disillusioned, depressed, broken martyr. The unfortunate thing is that we didn't see what bright him to that point. The last time we saw Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi he was resolved, triumphant, and resolute.

Maybe if we'd actually witnessed some of the events that made him borderline suicidal, than his appearance in The Last Jedi wouldn't have been so jarring to fans.

(11) That Battleship Is About As Impregnable As A Parking Garage!

You know what would improve the design of these military starships? Make it so that you can't fly directly into their super-structure and blow 'em up! It's as if the half-built second Death Star in ROTJ caught on as some sort of galactic, avant-garde hipster design ethos.

(10) General Leia Does Her Captain Marvel Impersonation

I love the idea of Leia finally displaying her Force powers...but the way she does it is unintentionally funny.

After her cruiser got hit, it would have been great to see her instinctively whip around, form some sort of protective barrier and prevent the explosive decompression which would allow the bridge crew to escape. Sure, it's not as OP as what we got but it's also not patently ridiculous to watch.   

(9) Vice-Admiral Who Now?

First off, I'm still not entirely sure why Poe takes so much heat in this film.

You can't blame him for the bombers getting creamed because the concept of sending a fleet of ponderous, poorly-armed, virtually-defenseless, meandering ships hurtling directly at a dreadnought is inherently stupid. I guess Poe's refusal to obey Leia's order to retreat forces the fleet to stick around and cover his insubordinate ass. Unfortunately, other than Leia briefly looking at a tactical display, Poe's role in the squandering of the Resistance fleet is very poorly conveyed.

After Leia is incapacitated, Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo is summarily introduced from out of nowhere. Sorry, but Holdo is nothing more than Rian Johnson's hubris at work. And, hey, this is coming from someone who absolutely adores Laura Dern. Unfortunately, the character's caustic attitude and Dern's appropriately-flinty performance make for one condescending and repellent package.

In order for Poe's arc in the movie to work, he has to be in the wrong. And since we already know, like and trust him, our sympathies automatically lie with him as opposed to Holdo. Especially when she acts like a shifty, snarky, uncommunicative twat-waffle. This would be like Yoda ordering Luke to go kick Vader's ass in The Empire Strikes Back and responding "if your opinion I wanted, beat it out of you, I would" if Luke expressed any doubts at all.

(8) Rose. Just...Rose 

In The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson acts like a petulant child that hates the outdated toys left to him by his big brother J.J. I actually visualize him crossing his arms, stamping his feet and muttering "I want NEW stuff!" within earshot of Kathleen Kennedy.

Unfortunately that new plaything turned out to be Rose Tico.

Before I proceed, lemme get one thing straight: Kelly Marie Tran is a lovely and delightful human bean and doesn't deserve any of the nasty treatment she was subjected to. It's important to stress that the only people who can't distinguish creator from actor are slack-jawed troglodytes.

It's not her fault that the part was ill-conceived and poorly written. Between Rose directly spoiling Finn and Rey's early reunion and her batshit insane motivations towards the end of the film, most audience members found her to be alternately preachy and / or annoying. If you don't believe me, head over to your nearest discount department store and see how many Rose Tico (in)action figures you can buy for twenty bucks.

Hint: it's twenty of them.

(7) "Lupita Nyong'o Is Asking For Black Panther Money Now? Okay, We'll Fix Her Little, Red Wagon..."

Maz Kanata should’ve been the "master code breaker." It would’ve given this already-established  character some much-needed screen time, scrapped her dumb-ass cameo in the flick and, most importantly, jettisoned all of that pointless Canto Bight nonsense.

Plus maybe she would have had the time to explain this cryptic and infuriating bullshit...

(6) "Rey, Meet The Locals: Jab, Streex, Big Slammu, and Ripster."

Speaking of toys, Rian Johnson was 21 when Street Sharks debuted in 1994. And although he was clearly too old to collect them, I still think he was a fan, cuz' the lanai, or the caretakers that live on the planet of Ahch-To, look like whtat would happen if a street shark fucked an ostrich.

The way these natives are introduced in the film is really jarring. They just kinda pop in, milling around the stone village as if they suddenly phased in from another dimension. It's like they all collectively shrugged of their Harry Potter-style invisibility cloaks...and the effect is really jarring.

Every time I watch this scene I feel as if I'm experiencing some sort of weird, communal, audience participation-style acid flashback with Luke and Rey.

(5) "Yeah, Right Here Is Fine!" 

Consider this: everything goes wrong on Canto Bight just because Rose and Finn are too cheap to pay for parking.

This would be like abandoning your Hyundai Accent on Miami Beach and then wandering through the lobby of the Fontainebleau Hotel. C'mon, one is that stupid! 

(4) Phasma Is Back...And Not In A Detention Cell

I don't know what's worse: that Rian Johnson bothered to bring Phasma back with absolutely no repercussions after sold out the entire First Order in the first flick...or that her character's motivations and connections to Finn are completely ignored. This is fucking unforgivable.

(3) The Real Mary Sue Isn't Rey...It's BB-8 

For two dyer balls stuck together, that droid is 'effin dynamite. Not only can BB-8 turn slot machine tokens into dangerous projectiles, she's also mobile enough to steal and pilot a scout walker by herself. Jesus, why doesn't the Resistance just put a bulk order into Boston Dynamics and be done with it?

(2) Save-Us Interruptus  

Between John Boyega’s awesome performance and the stirring music from John Williams, Finn's run at the surface cannon could have capped off a decent arc for the character. Instead Rose intervenes, nearly killing both of them. Again...who the fuck would even think to do that?!?

Finn's self-sacrifice could have single-highhandedly saved his new friends and fired up their will to fight on. Instead we get the following inane conclusion:

(1) Luke: "The Force Isn’t About Lifting Rocks!" Rey: "Okay, Boomer!" 

If the script hadn't done poor Luke dirty at every turn, this could have been a cute moment. But since our beloved hero was written as a contender for the "Worst Cinematic Mentor EVAR" award, this sage advice comes across as yet another example of his failure.


So, there you have it. Keep an eye on this space for my review of The Rise of Skywalker, coming soon. Will it finally justify the existence of the Disney Star Wars trilogy or will the whole thing be revealed as little more than perfunctory entertainment product shit out to recoup an investment?

Place your bets, folks!

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Movie Review: "Knives Out"

I can't help but think that Knives Out is Rian Johnson's giant middle finger to all of those neck-bearded Star Wars fanboys out there who called him a hack because of The Last Jedi. If anything, this modern whodunit proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Johnson is a terrific film-maker who just got caught up in the pop culture equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru test.

With just about every recent release being a remake, reboot or falking superhero flick, Knives Out feels quaint, like a film-noir detective story or a classic Western not helmed by Quentin Tarantino. Even though the film brings to mind movies like Clue or an Agatha Christie novel, Johnson quickly dispenses with the core keep-away that's driven every single murder mystery since time immemorial. So, not only are we getting a fun modern example of a sadly-defunct genre, we'r also getting a fresh spin on the whole thing.

Having said that, all of the key elements are here. Christopher Plummer plays Harlan Thrombey, a writer who's successful mystery novels have built an empire that his vapid and selfish relatives are consciously leeching off of. Between his adult children and various other hanger-ons, the line up of suspects various from slightly sneaky to downright reprehensible. As such, Harlan decides to clean house just before his 85'th birthday, giving everyone in this toxic inner circle some motivation to end him.

Clearly there isn't anything particularly original about this hoary old elevator pitch. This extends to the hackneyed setting, which looks like stately Wayne Manor packed with overflow stock from The Travelling Antiques Roadshow. But what takes Knives Out from novelty to something truly special is how this stock scenario plays out.

First up, there's the stellar cast. The aforementioned Plummer is his usual charismatic self, essentially acting as the bedrock on which all of the other players can tap-dance. Jamie Lee Curtis is fantastic as Harlan's flinty, non-nonsense elder daughter Linda, Don Johnson is dodgy and slimy as her skeeze-ball husband Richard and Chris Evans is wonderfully smarmy as the bratty trust-fund grandson Hugh.

A hippy-dippy Toni Collette is also stellar as Joni Thrombey. She's so convincingly fake that she actually loops back around to authentic again. Props also go out to the always-awesome Michael Shannon who plays Harlan's son was Walt. As the opportunistic overseer of his dad's publishing empire, Shannon really brings out the character's desperation as his station is threatened.

It's tough to stand out among all of this talent, but two performers in particular really hit it out of the park. The first is lead protagonist Marta Cabrera, played by Ana de Armas, who was last seen as dream girl Joi in Blade Runner 2049. Here she's asked to carry the entire film, which she does with considerable wit, pathos and humor. 

The other top performer is Daniel Craig, who's clearly relishing his role as the southern-fried private dick Benoit Blanc. I'm just gonna ask Rian Johnson this right now: please, please, please bring this character back every few years for a series of  unconventional modern mysteries. At first, it's downright weird hearing that particular voice coming out of James Bond's mouth, but Craig's enthusiasm is so infectious and he delivers the purposefully over-wrought with such aplomb that I stop worrying and just went with it. 

Johnson's achievements aren't limited to the twisty-turny script or the dark humor inherent in the material. He also brings tremendous energy to the picture, directing the proceedings with considerable verve and artistic flair. Coupled with some crackerjack editing by Bob Ducsay and an appropriately-jaunty and string-heavy soundtrack by Nathan Johnson, you've got yourself a lively little crowd-pleaser.

I sincerely hope this film is successful and it kicks off a revival of the entire genre. Frankly, I'm at the stage where I'd take twelve of these things over one more mediocre Star Wars or Marvel movie.               
Knives Out scores four stars out of five with a healthy tilt up towards the widow's walk.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

T.V. Review: "The Mandalorian"

As intriguing as the Rebel vs. Imperial or Jedi vs. Sith struggles are in Star Wars, I've always been keenly interested in all of those weird-ass characters half-glimpsed in the periphery. I'm talking about the oddball droids in the Jawa sandcrawler, the denizens of the cantina or the bounty hunters in The Empire Strikes Back. Not so much the retinue in Jabba's Palace though, since, in the immortal words of Dante Hicks, those clowns were "just a bunch of fucking Muppets."

Yep, I've always been curious about the fringe-ier or scummier aspects of the Star Wars universe. And, apparently, so are The Mandalorian's main creative duo of Jon Favreau and Dave Feloni. As such, this is, IMHO, the first vaguely interesting and original Star Wars content that Disney has produced since they acquired the licence. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that the show has single-handedly reminded me why I loved this property in the first place.


The first episode of The Mandalorian sees the titular bad-ass nabbing a bounty on some desolate frozen tundra planet which might very well be somewhere in Newfoundland. Right away I was impressed by the tangible reality of this scene. The sets aren't digital, there aren't CGI abominations all over the place and it doesn't look like it was edited with an immersion blender.

Which reminds me, since ANH, TESB and ROTJ are almost universally regarded as the best episodes in this entire series so far, then why don't modern film-makers do a better job honoring the visual style of those films? I'm not saying that you have to rehash the same content (I'm looking at you, Abrams), I'm just saying that, by employing similar camerawork, framing and editing techniques you can, at the very least, create some visual ties to the original saga.

But more on that later.

Anyhoo, when the Mandalorian strides into that bar at the start of Chapter One, it's not hard to tell that Feloni and Favreau are really embracing the original inspiration for Boba Fett as a sort of space- opera version of "The Man With No Name." Just like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, our titular character is laconic, mysterious and can clearly back up his intimidating swagga with some legit deadly combat skills.

After the Mandalorian lugs his quarry back to his ship, the Razor Crest, director Dave Feloni treats uber-nerds like yours truly to a fun little homage. When a massive beast emerges from underneath the ice and threatens to void his warranty, the Mandalorian drives the creature away with a very distinct- looking weapon. It actually matches a rifle that Boba Fett sported during his first appearance in the decent animated segment of the otherwise dreadful Star Wars Holiday Special. It's a nice little nod to fans and a tip of the hat towards Fett's original designers Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston.

During the subsequent space flight, the Mandalorian proves to be more than slack-jawed and intimidating; he's also downright scary. When his captive, Mythrol, played by a nervously-talkative and decidedly-shifty Horatio Sanz, goes snooping around the ship, his spooky host suddenly pops up from outta nowhere like Freddy phreakin' Kruger. The bounty hunter hucks his prisoner into a personal-sized carbonite chamber, freeze-drying the nosy l'il bastid for the rest of the journey.

Clearly this dude is not to be trifled with.  

After the Mandalorian turns in a plethora of bounties, he boldly takes on a very lucrative, but strictly  hush-hush contract, proffered by an intense client with clear ties to the recently-overthrown Empire. This sees the mercenary travelling to a remote world, learning an important lesson in humility, partnering with a darkly comedic war droid named IG-11 and getting a lot more than he bargained for.

To divulge anymore particulars would be a disservice, so I'll just say that the end twist will ensure that I'll be tuning in for every new episode like a dutiful little Mousekateer. Although the script is nothing revolutionary, I certainly appreciate the scene where the Mandalorian returns to the hidden hideout of his people. I'll be the first to admit that my knowledge of his race is pretty sketchy, so I appreciate that the show runners are making an effort to shed some light on his origins. 

Dave Filoni, who's Clone Wars series did wonders to improve my dire view of Lucas's dreadful prequels, helms this material confidently. The story clips along at a nice, clear, planet-hopping pace, culminating in a Wild West-style shootout that perfectly embodies the point I was trying to make earlier. There aren't a million cuts in this sequence and, since the camera keeps its distance from the action, we can easily follow the battle's narrative. Thanks, Dave, for not falling prey to the same pall that afflicts so many modern-day action directors, with their penchant for hyperactive cuts and  incessant close- up's of kinetic blurs.

The cast is all uniformly great. Pedro Pascal moves with cool confidence and I'm pleased that he doesn't do the same ol' cliche, gravelly, bad-ass voice for the few lines he's tasked to deliver. It's also great to see the legendary Carl Weathers as Greef Carga, the leader of a bounty hunter guild. His demeanor is downright fuzzy and warm compared to that of Werner Herzog, who plays the mysterious Client with reptilian detachment. Anyone who's seen one of the storied director's documentaries and his narration therein knows exactly what I'm talking about. Dude is creepy as fux here.

Another fun addition is Nick Nolte (!) as Kuiil (!!), an Ugnaught (!!!) moisture farmer who encourages the Mandalorian to sneak into his destination instead of just plunking his ship down in their midst. Like the aforementioned Sanz, Nolte is practically unrecognizable under all that  convincing porcine makeup. Honestly, I had no clue that either of those two actors were in there but, once I discovered their identity, their particular tics and mannerisms inform both characters quite well.

This also extends to the voice work by Taika Waititi as IG-11. The promotional stills and trailers had me convinced that the character was actually the infamous bounty hunter IG-88 from The Empire Strikes Back, but I'm kind of relieved that it's not. Honestly, new characters will give the showrunners the freedom be more creative. Armed with Favreau's witty dialogue, Waititi wrings a lot of mileage out of a genuinely-funny recurring bit centered around the droid's masochistic proclivity towards premature self-destruction.

I also can't say enough about the show's flawless production values. The costumes, props, ships and sets all look spectacular. Setting the series after the fall of the Empire not only gives Favreau and company the ability to pepper in some really cool little visual Easter eggs, but they also have the freedom to come up with their own evolving visual palate. Related to this, I think the producers should just go ahead and park a sandcrawler filled with cash in front of Joe Johnston's house and politely ask him to come up with a few more iconic designs.

The ending of this episode was like the first episode of The Shield, but set in a "galaxy far, far away." Not only does it show that the Mandalorian is relatable as a character, it also conjures up enough questions to ensure that I'll be sitting there again this next Friday, wearing my mouse ears and waiting anxiously for Chapter Two to upload.

Chapter 2: “The Child”

I think I liked this episode more than the first. How is that even possible?!?

So, we pick up the action right at the end of Chapter 1 with Los Mandos escorting his newly-acquired, and painfully adorable, bounty back to his ship. He’s then alerted to an imminent ambush, which results in a brutal fight between our (anti) hero and a Trandoshan hit squad.

Now, given my inexplicable fetish for the bounty hunter Bossk from The Empire Strikes Back, I’m always excited whenever these gnarly lizard-folk show up in any Star Wars property. So, full disclosure: I’m already predisposed to giving the episode a pass but, mercifully, the whole thing turned out to be even better than its choice of minor antagonists.

The Mandalorian makes short work of the bounty hunters, but he’s wounded in the process. After the fray, we see that the Trandos were carrying a tracker as well, so we can safely assume that every gank squad in the galaxy is coming for The Child.

Which leads me to a few observations about the saucer-eyed, hang-glider-eared tyke. In most shitty movies and TV shows babies are depicted as noisy, hyperactive, obnoxious little fuckers that you want to see punted off screen within a few seconds. But this isn’t the case with what the internet has already dubbed as “Baby Yoda.” Just like the famous Jedi Master that shares his species, this adorable l’il larvae is so calm, zen and observant, you just wanna chew his cute l’il green face right off. 

Um, sorry. Just me?

This is made no more apparent than in the very next scene. While the Mandalorian tries to patch himself up, he keeps having to pause and put Babyoda back in his crib, ‘cuz he keeps crawling out and trying to touch his wounded arm. After the second escape attempt, our boi just seals the kid up in his floating egg-basinet, completely oblivious to the fact that the l’il guy was just trying to heal him.

When the Mandalorian gets back to the Razor Crest, he discovers to his horror that his ship has been dismantled by Jawas. Now, for most casual viewers this would be just another scene but, for me, a died–in-the-Tauntaun-wool Star Wars nerd, it was a genuine head-scratcher.

Waitaminit!” I thinks to meself. “What planet is this? Is this Tatooine?”

Previously-established Star Wars lore dictates that Jawas are exclusively native to the oft-profiled hunk of rock. In fact, the only reason why Jawas drive around in sandcrawlers is because they “inherited” these massive vehicles after a mining operation on Tatooine went bottom-up.  

Alas, I didn’t have much time to dwell on this ‘cuz the Mandalorian preceded to STRAIGHT-UP VAPORIZE three or four of the cloaked scavengers in cold blood. I gotta say, I really dig this guy’s penchant for random murder. Scenes like this must give the Disney content homogenization assurance team (C.H.A.T. for short) night terrors.

The Jawas fled into their sandcrawler and hightailed it, but the bounty hunter gave chase on foot. Episode director Rick Famuyiwa then proceeds to serve up one of the most fun action set-pieces I’ve seen in recent memory. The Mandalorian runs after the oversized quad-runner and, in a sequence that had me thinking about the old Super Star Wars Nintendo game, he starts scaling the side of the machine.

One of my biggest fears going into The Mandalorian was that the writers would be so obsessed about depicting the titular character as an indelible bad-ass that he’d never be shown failing at anything. Well, this episode certainly put those concerns to rest because my dude just gets shit on constantly here. After doggedly reaching the top of the ‘crawler, his determination is rewarded with a hail of ion blaster fire that send him hurtling back down to earth. It’s a wonderfully goofy scene that had me chuckling.

Now marooned, Los Mandos is forced to go back to his buddy Kuill, played to grumpy perfection by Nick Nolte. While the Ugnaught tries to convince his masked pal to parley with the Jawas for the stolen parts, we see Mini-Yoda quietly chasing after a nearby frog. Now, in a more mediocre show, the whole focus would be on the baby’s stupid antics, but here it’s almost a throwaway. The only time we focus on the kid is when he finally catches the critter, leading to an unexpected visual gag that, once again, had me in hysterics.

In the next scene we see the trio schlepping through a major rainstorm to get to the Jawas.

“Frogs? Mud? Rain?!? Okay, this has to be some other planet,” I muttered out loud.

After making a mental note to do some Veronica Mars-style innerweb research later on, I watched with great interest as the Mandalorian finally met face-to-face with his diminutive rivals. Except for one brief moment where our hot-headed protagonist nearly torched the Jawa leader with his flamethrower, things went reasonably well. The thieves agreed to give the parts back if the bounty hunter was willing to retrieve a mysterious egg for them.

They drop him off close to a cave which, as it turns out, is inhabited by what looks like the reek from Attack of the The resulting fight between the beast and El Mando is a nasty, (literally) dirty, desperate affair that had me on the edge of my seat. The battle is conceptualized and realized so well, that I felt just as exhausted, mud-covered and resigned to my fate as the Mandalorian did during a low point in the confrontation. 

Side note: here’s a fun experiment you can do with anyone who still thinks the prequels are decent films. After you make them watch THE BATTLE OF THE EGG, go back and revisit the coliseum scene in Episode II where Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padme fight the reek, the acklay and the nexu. Viewed back to back, these two scenes are the perfect dichotomy between a tense, immersive action sequence versus a boring, un-engaging CGI cartoon that feels devoid of any real-world stakes.

This scene also makes me feel guilty for not mentioning composer Ludwig Göransson a lot earlier. The music he designed for this series is absolutely stellar; it’s memorable and complementary without being obnoxious or overwhelming. The use of wind instruments at the beginning of the episode really evokes those welcome Ennio Morricone vibes and the odd, dissonant tones heard during the reek battle serve to put the viewer audibly off-kilter.  

So, above and the beyond Wee Yoda’s not-entirely-unexpected intervention and the Jawa’s, shall we say, unconventional (yet practical) use for the retrieved egg, there’s just one other thing I wanted to point out. Just before the Mandalorian blasts off in his newly-repaired ship, Kuill utters the following ice-cold line:

“Good luck with the child. May it survive and bring you a handsome reward.”

Between this quote, as well as the Mandalorian’s penchant for sniping Jawas and murdering animals for their eggs, I couldn’t help but think that it’s a minor miracle that this show even exists. I’m pleasantly surprised and relieved that Disney green-lit a Star Wars show which doesn’t have boring non-entities like Poe, Rey and Finn at its core. In fact, we’re just two episodes in and it’s pretty clear that the central character, and his allies, inhabit a morally-grey realm where folks will do just about anything for their own personal gain.

It’s gotten to the point where I’m pretty sure the Mandalorian is gonna turn his adorable l’il bounty in, even though he’ll probably regret his actions immediately and seek to rectify his mistake. This alone makes The Mandalorian the edgiest, and most interesting, Star Wars property in, well, forever. 

P.S. Apparently the planet they're on is called Arvala-7. Zero stars, don't bother with this POS show. Kidding!  

Monday, October 7, 2019

Movie Review: "Friday the 13'th Part 2"

WARNING: Although this should go without saying, the following deep-dive retrospective / review of a nearly forty (!) year old movie contains spoilers! You have been warned!

Even though Friday the 13’th Part 2 is better crafted and more engaging than its predecessor, it also makes a few baffling miss-steps that prevents it from reaching the top tier of this minor pantheon.

For one, the movie is seriously hamstrung by a pre-credit sequence that’s supposed to take place two months after the events of the first film. In it, we see final girl Alice (Adrienne King) experiencing a “nightmare”, which is just a cheap way for director Steve Miner and writer Ron Kurz to recap the events of Part 1 for the audience.

Y’see, kids, back in THE DARK AGES (I.E. 1981), streaming video was still science fiction and home video was practically non-existent. As such, whenever you made a sequel, you couldn’t just assume that the audience had seen or could remember the events of the prior film. So, yes, even though it made sense back then to include a flashback / dream sequence in the sequel’s prologue, the ease with which modern audiences can find and watch the first flick kinda makes this whole preamble feel like wasted screen time.

It also doesn’t help that Adrienne King’s interpretation of a “bad dream” is comically thrashing around on her bed as if she’s auditioning for Exorcist III. At least the subsequent phone conversation she has with her mom is more understated than any of her overwrought line deliveries in the first film. Maybe she was depressed after laying eyes on the “Cabbage Patch Kid” ensemble that the wardrobe department had picked out for her or how shabbily the script was about to treat her character.  

At least the film-makers cared enough to scatter a few of Alice’s paintings around her apartment, which is a nice call back to the sketches she did in Part 1. Beyond these minor nods to continuity, I despise this pre-credit sequence with the fire of a million suns. And it’s not just the repetition and wasted time I’m salty about, it’s just how stupid and nonsensical the whole thing is.

So, as it turn out, this “nightmare” is just a preamble to Alice inexplicably discovering the decapitated noggin’ of Pamela Voorhees sitting next to the Sunny D in her fridge. At least I think it’s supposed to be Pamela, ‘cuz the prop looks less like actress Betsy Palmer and more like Jeff Daniels. Regardless, this little stunt distracts Alice long enough for her killer to ambush her from behind and bury an ice pick in her skull. And with that, the film finally segues into its ‘splody title sequence.

First off, I can’t overstate how disrespectful this is to the character of Alice. It brings to mind the arbitrary killing of Newt and Hicks in Alien 3 or dispatching the scattered survivors from A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3 within the first few minutes of Part 4. Look, Alice survived her ordeal in the first film and, frankly, she deserves a reprieve. To knock her off like the first action n item on a shitty “things-to-do” list is really galling.   

Beyond this heinous transgression against the unwritten survivor girl code, there’s a lot more stupidity to unpack here. First off, the concept that Jason has somehow emerged from out of nowhere to kill Alice in an act of revenge is enough to drive any die-hard Friday fan completely batty. Any way you cut it (pun intended), this scarcely makes any sense, and that’s saying something when it comes to this series!

In order for this to work at all, we have to assume that the gross, rotten, zombie kid that popped out of the water at the end of Part 1 was just a figment of Alice’s fevered imagination. This leads us to conclude that Jason never drowned at all. I dunno, maybe he bumped his head on a log, washed up on shore with amnesia and then spent his formative years growing up in the woods until the sight of Alice lopping his mom’s head off brought his memories back.

Even if we accept that insane theory, the prologue would have us believe that Jason somehow managed to figure out where Alice lived, schlepped all the way there from Crystal Lake, crept into her apartment, placed his mom’s head in her fridge, then crept up and stabbed her. It’s phreakin’ ridiculous!

Alright, more warped Jason chronology and wacky theories later. We’ve got a lot of (camp)ground to cover here, folks.

Fast forward five years later and head counselor Paul Holt (John Furey) is looking to open a new summer camp on a different part of Crystal Lake. We’re then introduced to a whole new cast of fresh meat, er, camp counselor, including adorkable goofball Ted (Stuart Charno), sweet-but-blatantly-horny Vickie (Lauren-Marie Taylor), her object de lust, the hunky, wheel-chair-bound Mark (Tom McBride,) fuck buddies Sandra (Marta Kober) and Jeff (Bill Randolph), free spirit / Muffin mom Terry (Kirsten Baker) and her waaay-creepier-than-Jason stalker, Scott, played by Russell Todd.   

This is also where we meet the film’s MVP / secret weapon, Amy Steel. I’m just gonna come right out and say this now: Amy is, IMHO, the Jamie Lee Curtis / Heather Langencamp of the Friday the 13’th series. In fact, I’m going to be so bold as to say that her Ginny is my all-time favorite survivor girls in slasher history. Although the “sign of the times” script does her dirty occasionally (more on that later), Amy’s portrayal is so genuine, resourceful, intelligent and plucky that I’m willing to overlook all of these wrong-headed script decisions.  

After all the trainees show up, Paul proceeds to scare the fertilizer out of them by recounting the story of Jason, campfire-style, yo:

“I'm gonna give it to you straight about Jason; his body was never recovered from the lake after he drowned. And if you listen to the old-timers in town, they'll tell you he's still out there, some sort of demented creature, surviving in the wilderness, full grown by now. Stalking, stealing what he needs, living off wild animals and vegetation. Some folks claim they've even seen him, right in this area. The girl that survived that night at Camp Blood, that Friday The 13th, she claimed she saw him. She disappeared two months later... vanished. Blood was everywhere. No one knows what happened to her. Legend has it that Jason saw his mother beheaded that night. Then, he took his revenge, a revenge he continued to seek if anyone ever enters his wilderness again. And, by now, I guess you all know we're the first to return here. Five years, five long years he's been dormant...and he's hungry. Jason's out there, watching, always on the prowl for intruders. Ready to kill, ready to devour...thirsty for young blood!”

It’s a wonderfully creepy moment that really helps to establish Jason as a modern day (read: 80’s-era) urban legend. Pity the tension is completely deflated when wacky prankster Ted leaps into their midst, brandishing a spear and wearing a caveman outfit and a long-haired zombie mask. Having said that, I completely understand why director Steve Miner and writer Ron Kurz did this.

By making light of what he sees as a non-issue, Paul gives both his staff and the audience a false sense of security. I also appreciate that the script acknowledges the epic tragedy that happened in the first film. Setting Part 2 five years in the future and firmly establishing Crystal Lake as a “no go” zone really helps establish a modicum of realism.

Oh, and in case it isn’t blatantly obvious from his first millisecond on screen, Ted is this movie’s Ned from Part 1, in that he’s a walking Dad joke. For some reason, though, the character isn’t nearly as irritating. Credit for this goes to actor Stuart Charno, who’s disarming awkwardness and understated deliveries add to his appeal. Plus it really helps that the character isn’t just written as a professional asshole. That’s actually, Scott, but more on that fuckboi later.

Then the movie makes another baffling misstep: unceremoniously killing off Walt Gorney’s Crazy Ralph. Already established as a national treasure by his appearance in the first film, Ralph scarcely gets a chance to weird anyone out before he’s unceremoniously garroted by someone in a blue plaid shirt. Prime suspect #1: George Lucas!

Seriously, though, his demise is shockingly lame. Part 1 screenwriter Victor Miller was inspired to throw Ralph into the mix as an old-school harbinger of doom, a “soothsayer right out of Shakespeare.” So maybe director Steve Miner and screenwriter Ron Kurz thought Ralph’s presence was a bit too melodramatic or Scooby-Doo-ish to warrant more screen time. Personally, I love Gorney’s ultra-hammy deliveries and I really wish the series kept him around a little bit longer.

At the very least, Ralph’s death jacks up the threat level, which is then heightened when Sandra goads Jeff into sneaking off to Camp Blood, presumably because Packanack Lodge doesn’t have the cable hooked up yet. During their trek they come across a mutilated animal, which the audience instant assumes is Terry’s missing dog, Muffin. Moments later, they’re busted by Deputy Winslow (Jack Marks), who proceeds to lose his proverbial shit on them.

Jack’s aneurysm-level performance really drives home the point that Camp Crystal Lake is about as accessible as Chernobyl. Although it’s been five years since the events of the first film, it’s clear that the murders are still fresh in the minds of the locals. Inexorably, this sense of realism would start to ebb out of the series, eventually prompting viewers to wonder why anyone in their right mind would venture into this county let alone Crystal Lake itself!

Deputy Winslow is one hardcore motherfucker. After he spots what appears to be a Deliverance cosplayer running across the road, he immediately pulls over and gives chase. He ends up in a dodgy, ramshackle cabin which turns out to be the perfect spot for an ambush. Moments after Winslow’s horrified reaction foreshadows the film’s Gotterdammerung climax, the Deputy gets hammered on duty and the tension continues to rise. 

This is probably a good spot to mention the film’s authentic, evocative and immersive setting.  Even though Part 2 was shot in Connecticut instead of New Jersey, it still makes effective use of those distinctive East Coast North American forests. Whenever the actors are tramping through the woods, I can’t help but wonder if they know what poison ivy looks like. Future films in the series would eschew this approach for sunny Californian back-lots or tax breaks down south, but this sacrificed the kind of atmosphere that The Blair Witch Project exploited so successfully years later.

This brings me to Jason’s cabin, which is a humble, but no less effective, triumph of production design. It really does look like the hovel of some crazed hermit who’s been living in the woods for about a decade.  Add in the isolated and authentic environs of North Spectacle Pond in Kent, Connecticut, which stands in for the iconic Packanack Lodge, and you’ve got a horror movie setting that’s pretty much ideal.

With so many counselors running around, screenwriter Ron Kurz cleverly thins out the herd by shipping half of them off to the Casino Bar in “town.” It’s here that Amy Steele delivers her speculative soliloquy about Jason, which really solidifies the lore of the series. I also think it’s funny that Ted’s drunken obsession with finding an after-hours club is ultimately what spares him from Jason’s all-encompassing wrath.

We then return to camp and witness the wacky hijinx of Russell Todd’s Scott. Let’s face it: everyone knows a Scott, I.E. that dude who thinks he can act like an entitled douche-nozzle just because he’s impossibly good looking. This might sound like a thinly-veiled insult, but Todd is note-perfect: smarmy, arrogant, and brash, basically a poster boy for #metoo movement.

When Terry inexplicably refuses to leap into the sack with him after her smokes her in the ass with a slingshot rock, he acts contrite for a second, generating a blip of sympathy from the audience. But then the creep STEALS HER PHREAKIN’ CLOTHES when she decides to go swimming au naturel.

I guess I should address Kirsten Baker’s infamous skinny dipping scene. Now, I’m sure Kirsten was originally hired for the role of Terry because she was drop-dead gorgeous but she’s actually really good in the role, especially when she has to fend off Scott’s pervy advances. Watching this, I can’t help but wonder if Kirsten had to contend with an endless parade of real-life “Scott’s” during her film career.

Speaking as someone who thinks swimsuits are patently ridiculous, it makes perfect sense to me that Terry swims nekkid. Now, I’m also not gonna sit here and claim that the film-makers included this scene because they were crusading for body freedom and non-sexual nudity. Quite the opposite, in fact. Despite being regarded as an “era of excess”, the 80’s were a notoriously-prudish decade and nudity, specifically female nudity, was often included just for titillation.  

Even people who haven’t seen a single Friday the 13’th film knows that if you (A) got naked, (B) smoked weed or, perish forbid, (C) fucked someone in one of these movies, you pretty much just signed your death warrant. And even though Sean Cunningham and other creative luminaries in the series swear up and down that this wasn’t a deliberate choice, it sure feels that way. In retrospect, this makes the entire series feels laughably Puritanical.

Take Lauren-Marie Taylor as Vickie, for example. I love her because she’s a take-charge kinda gal who’s clearly got a case of the throbbing thigh sweats for hunky Tom McBride’s Mark. She just wants to get busy, how can you not sympathize with her? Unfortunately , this is a Friday the 13’th flick, so that means sex-positive folks like Vickie aren’t long for this world.

While I’m on the subject, I should also mention Tom McBride, who plays the charismatic and charmingly-clueless Mark. In a modern horror flick Mark would just be THAT GUY IN THE WHEELCHAIR but here we get a few lines about what happened to him and what his aspirations are. The exchange where he re-assures Vickie that everything below the equator works perfectly fine is oddly innocent and charming. When Jason takes him out, it’s truly one of the most shocking and disturbing kills in the entire series. 

Side note: all of the scenes featuring an unseen Jason stalking his victims feature some surprisingly-good camera work and set-ups from first time director Steve Miner. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the upstart Miner consistently outdoes his mentor Sean Cunningham. Part 2 doesn’t just look better than Part 1, it’s also directed with a lot more urgency, verve and panache.

Another thing worth mentioning is the excellent cinematography by Peter Stein. Even when darkness falls and the torrential downpour starts, we have no problem seeing all of the glossy, rain-slicked mayhem with perfect clarity. Between the lived-in setting and the slick camerawork, everything looks cold and wet and, as a result, the viewer can’t help but feel a visual chill. In a lesser film you’d be struggling to see anything at all in the darkness.

When bodies start dropping, the pace of the film becomes relentless. I can only assume that Ron Kurz or Steve Miner (or both!) must have seen Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood at some point because they blatantly cribbed at least two kills from that seminal giallo splatterfest. This includes Mark’s aforementioned “machete to the mush” as well as the in-coitus shish-kebob of Jeff and Sandra. Having said that, both kills are well executed, pun not intended.

This brings me to the gore effects. Now, I know this is probably sacrilege, but I really like Carl Fullerton’s makeup work, and I’d even go so far as to say that it rivals Tom Savini’s efforts in the first film. Of course, we have to keep in mind that Fullerton probably had a lot more time and money to work with, so the comparisons are likely unfair.

About around this time we also get our first good look at Jason. First off, he’s wearing the latest in “hillbilly chic”, which is a set of denim overalls, the aforementioned blue plaid shirt and a burlap sack over his head. Although it can be argued that the killer in The Town That Dreaded Sundown or John Merrick in The Elephant Man wore it better, it’s still kind of creepy. It’s just not the iconic look that fans will soon come to love.

Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that Jason has a distinguishing feature on the thumb nail of his left hand which, by the way, we never ever, ever see again. In Part 2, Jason was actually portrayed by two actors: Steve Daskawisz and Warrington Gillette. Over the years, determining what actor is Jason in any given scene is a source of tremendous debate and controversy.

As the story goes, Warrington Gillette was hired based on the actor’s claim that he was comfortable doing stunts. Unfortunately, when they got on set, Gillette just couldn’t do the work, which forced stunt coordinator Cliff Cudney to hastily recruit dedicated stuntman Steve “Dash” Daskawisz a full week into shooting. By all accounts, Daskawisz was the killer in every scene where Jason is masked, which is to say, 99.9% of them.

I like how Jason’s modus operandi, such as his playful predilection for building traps, is already starting to come together. He also leaves the bloody sheets on the bed, knowing that Ginny and Paul will find them and get spooked but hides the bodies so as not to completely tip them off. He also knocks out the power, which becomes standard Jason procedure in many subsequent episodes.

I must admit; it’s a tad disappointing when Jason finally pops out and attacks Paul, because the head counselor actually looks like has a few inches on our boi. At this stage, Jason isn’t the hulking ogre that we see in future entries and their subsequent scrap is pretty sad. Even worse, since Part 2 was years before Aliens and T2, female characters were sadly relegated to the role of “panicked standby.” So, instead of Ginny helping a brother out, she just stands there and repeats Paul’s name over and over again. Yeeeesh.

Speaking of idiotic, there’s an even more egregious scene that sells poor Ginny “down the river”, so to speak. At one point our intrepid Final Girl is hiding under the bed when a big-ass rat happens by. This apparently scares her so badly that she PROJECTILE URINATES THROUGH HER CLOTHES. This begs the question: who in the almighty fuck though that was a good idea? Oh, right, a bunch of stupid guys who clearly don’t know that men are ten times more likely to ‘fraidy pee than women.  

Well, needless to say, Jason notices this conspicuous tsunami of urine jetting out from the foot of the bed and then doubles back to climbs up on a chair so Ginny can’t see his legs. As soon as she starts to crawl out from her hiding spot, Jason attempts to skewer her but, as luck would have it, the chair founders under the goon’s weight and he comically crashes to the floor.

Yo, Jay: you’d better hope that Michael Myers didn’t see that, dawg, or he’s gonna roast your ass!

Needless to say, scenes like this really diminish Jason as a scary figure. Earlier on, Ginny does an admirable job of ducking and hiding, culminating in a pretty funny defensive nut shot. Later, Jason continues with the pratfalls, hilariously recoiling away from Ginny’s chainsaw gambit, which causes him stumble backwards, trip and smoke his burlapped noggin on the back of a chair.

In the film-makers defense, this clumsy Jason makes a fair bit of sense. He hasn’t evolved to hulking ogre or undead juggernaut yet. If you think about it, he’s a thirty-seven-year-old Deliverance-style forest hermit who barely seen other people let alone fight them, so I’m willing to cut him some slack.

Now, I can hear you asking, “How the fux do you know how old Jason is at this point?!?” Well, he drowned at age ten in 1957, then the events of Friday the 13’th occurred in 1979, which is 22 years later and then Part 2 goes five years into the future, so  10 + 22 + 5 = 37.

Jesus, I need a hobby.  Anyway, back to the movie. 

In addition to the kooky timeline, the script makes some serious logical leaps in order to get Ginny out into the woods. Instead of searching the camp for car keys, she just runs out into the middle of nowhere and eventually stumbles across Jason‘s cabin. Assuming that there’s someone inside who can help her, she just kinda barges in.

Of course, this had to happen because we need the big reveal of Jason’s mom-shrine. It’s a legitimately disturbing scene, with a creepy Ed Gein-esque quality to it. With Pam’s desiccated head and rotting sweater acting as the centerpiece, hawk-eyed viewers will notice that the bodies of Deputy Winslow, Terry and, for the love of gawd, Alice are all present.

So, lemme get this straight, not only did Jason track down and kill Alice, he also lugged her dead body all the way back to his cabin without being seen. Um, oooookay.

Notwithstanding this idiocy, the scene does give Ginny a chance to apply her aforementioned child psychology skills to save her own skin. Donning Pamela’s sweater and impersonating her is a stroke of minor brilliance, and Amy Steel sells it to the hilt. Steve Miner also earns bonus points here for including a very welcome cameo by Betsy Palmer. It’s great to have her back at any capacity, and I’ve always thought that the Friday series didn’t use her nearly enough to explore her origin story via flashbacks.

Ginny’s plan might be clever, but I legitimately feel bad for Jason. Convinced that Ginny is his real mom, he unquestionably kneels down in front of her when it’s asked of him, setting up a moment of true betrayal. Maybe this is what finally put Jason completely over the edge and why he’s so pissed off at twenty-something’s-playing-teenagers for the rest of the series. 

Side note: seeing Jason’s lone, baleful eye staring out from behind that hood at what he thinks is his long-lost, beloved mother is fifty percent mournful and fifty percent creepy as all get-out.

At the last second, Jason catches a glimpse of his mom’s mushy melon on the altar and deflects Ginny’s killing blow. Then, Paul pops back up from out of nowhere, grabs Jason and their ensuing wrestling match causes the cabin to start collapsing down on top of them. This time Ginny has the presence of mind to pick up the machete and, in another slo-mo attack which hearkens back to the first film, she buries the fucking thing in Jason’s flanneled shoulder. This begs the question: Jason is still human at this the fuck did he possibly recover from this grievous wound by the start of the next movie?

Then, in a moment which likely had theater-goers yelling obscenities at the screen back in 1981, Ginny pauses to remove Jason‘s hood. Sure, it’s not what I would have done at that particular moment, but their horrified reaction to this off-screen sight nicely presages the insane finale. They finally decide to head back to the camp which, frankly, is what humble author’s first impulse would have been.

During all of this, Amy Steel’s terror and trauma is absolutely convincing, especially when it sounds as if Jason is somehow back and sniffing around outside the front door. In a twist, the visitor turns out to be Terry’s wayward  Shih Tzu, Muffin. Beyond providing a memorable false scare, Muffin’s re-appearance gets Steve Miner and company off the audience’s shit list for showing what looked like a mangled pupper earlier on. Secondly, it gives composer extraordinaire Harry Manfredini an opportunity to audibly sucker-punch the audience again, just like he did in the first film.

Throughout the entire film, Manfredini’s Bernard Herrmann-esque Psycho-tinged score has been elevating the terror level to nigh-impossible heights. But then Manfredini uses Muffin’s re-appearance as the perfect excuse to cue up the sappy “Hey, kids, look! The dog’s still alive! Everything’s gonna be alright!” suite to lull viewers into a fall sense of security.

So, when Cro-Magnon Jason inevitably jumps through the window and grabs Amy Steel, the audience shits a communal brick without any ado. Honestly, it’s a well-executed and well-earned scare that’s on-par with the finale of the first film. Carl Fullerton’s design for adult Jason is actually pretty horrifying, even if it doesn’t line up at all with his appearance in Part 3.

Then we get this bizarre denouement which has Friday fans scratching their heads to this day. The screen fades to white and the next thing we see is Ginny being packed into the back of an ambulance, with Paul nowhere to be seen.


Some fans posit that everything that happened after the showdown in the shack was a nightmare, not unlike Jason popping out of the lake to attack Alice in the first flick. After Jason killed Paul in the shack and Ginny put the machete through the killer’s collarbone, she likely wandered back to the camp, passed out and was then discovered by the paramedics. This explains why Paul is mysteriously MIA and why the remains in the woods look like Muffin. It’s because it was Muffin...those sick fucks!

There’s only one missed opportunity and that’s the very final scene. When the camera slowly zooms in on the decapitated, desiccated head of Pamela Voorhees, it would have been fun if her eyes suddenly shot open and then it faded to credits. Not only would this have been a nice little jump scare, it would have reminded viewers of Pamela’s alpha and omega role in the franchise.

So, there you have it! Some might argue that Part 2 is nothing more than a remake of the first film, and, I suppose, a case could be made for this. In my opinion, aside for some meat-headed script decisions, the second flick is a lot leaner and meaner than its predecessor. It also continues to advance the lore of this series, setting up Part 3, which took Jason from generic killer to full-blown cultural icon.

But that’s a campfire tale for another time!

Friday the 13'th Part 2 scores three stars out of five with a tilt down for that stupid prologue crap! 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Movie Review: "Friday the 13'th" (1980)

Just like every other budding horror fan in the early 80's, I was acutely aware of the impossible-to-ignore impact of the Friday the 13'th film series. Unfortunately, as a kid growing up in a small town, I couldn't sneak into the theater or rent these movies from my local video store. All I could do was sneak an occasional peek at the lurid VHS box covers, which immediately caused my prepubescent brain to squirm with discomfort at the very thought of the taboo-violating horrors that haunted the magnetic tape inside.

At the center of my fascination was Jason Voorhees, the through-line killer of the series. His evolution from deformed, mentally-challenged drowning victim to sack-faced, back-woods trapper to Ken-Dryden-meets-Rasputin brute to undead juggernaut really fascinated me. It didn't hurt that I was obsessed with goaltenders at the time and my favorite hockey cards were the once that featured netminders wearing olde skool fibreglass masks, often jazzed up with terrifying, kabuki-style paint jobs.

Unable to see these movies first hand, I turned to my beloved horror movie books for some insight, but they failed me as well. Most of these stuffy tomes were written by octogenarian film snobs who were loathe to talk about any film lensed after the mid-Sixties.They seemed to reserve a particularly vitriolic brand of disdain for the Friday the 13'th movies, either choosing to ignore them or dismissing them outright as degenerate "video nasties" that scarcely deserved a mention.

Eventually I did see a few of the Friday films, completely out of order, mind you, but what I saw was enough to warrant further exploration. Then, when Gun Media released their video game tie-in, I bought it, played the crap out of it and immediately became obsessed. I rushed out and acquired the first eight Paramount movies on Blu-Ray and I've been plowing through them in chronological order from start to finish.

Here then are the results of these viewings. Be warned, spoilers abound!

Let me make this crystal (lake) clear: the very first Friday the 13'th movie isn't very good. I give it props for kick-starting my favorite slasher franchise but, beyond the origin story, there really isn't much to recommend here. In fact, after you learn about the film's cynical origins, it's easy to understand why this movie feels so slapdash.

After Halloween (1978) emerged from the fringes of Hollyweird to become the most lucrative indie picture in the history of cinema, it was followed by a slew of copycats. Enter producer / director Sean S. Cunningham, who'd previously given us The Art of Marriage, a thinly veiled porn flick disguised as an educational film, as well as Wes Craven's wince-inducing exploitation flick Last House on the Left.

Anxious to replicate the success of Halloween, Cunningham started fashioning a script called A Long Night at Camp Blood which, let's face it, is a much more appropriate title. Not long after, Cunningham decided to go full rip-off and re-name his script after another nominal holiday. Paranoid that someone else was going to beat him to the punch, he then took out the the following speculative ad in Variety:

To his surprise, Cunningham suddenly found himself inundated with a slew of financing and distribution offers. There was just one wee little problem: this "currently in production" fright fest which was "available in November of 1979" didn't even have a completed script yet! With his bluff duly called, Cunningham lit a fire under screenwriter Victor Miller, who completed the screamplay in the summer of 1979, just a few short months before cameras started to roll in September!

Whether it was foresight or happenstance, Miller certainly came up with a mise en scène that was rife with possibilities for expansion. Even though the film's plot is threadbare at best, you have to concede that the isolated setting, combined with the methodical and creative kills, results in a reasonably suspenseful and atmospheric whodunit. That is, until they reveal who actually done it but, I'll get to that.

First off we get a flashback to 1958, featuring two horny camp counselors understandably abandoning their lame "Kumbaya"-style group sing-along in lieu of some secret snoggery. Naturally, this results in both of them being murdered POV-style without a shred of context. Flash forward to present day (read: 1980) and Camp Crystal Lake is slated to re-open, despite falling prey to multiple pitfalls that reek of sabotage and the locals colorfully referring to the place as "Camp Blood."

What follows should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever seen a slasher flick or had one poorly described to them. A parade of nearly interchangeable "teen" staff is (very) slowly picked off, one by one, in creative ways by some unseen stalker. This all leads to a big reveal of the killer and a final showdown that rivals the on-screen tilt between "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live.

Actually, I'm totally lying. It's bad. Like, real bad. Again, more on that later. 

At least the environment gives the movie a gritty, realistic feel. This wasn't shot on some fake-ass, sun-kissed California back lot, this sucker was lensed on location at "Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco" (seriously, you can't make this shit up) in Blairstown, New Jersey. As such, the buildings all look shabby, ramshackle and decidedly lived-in. One can only hope that the place has been refurbished at least once in the past thirty-plus years.

Factor in the adjoining Crystal Lake (named Sand Pond in real life) and the distinctive woods of northern New Jersey, and you've got yourself a pretty decent l'il horror movie setting. And there are times when director Cunningham and his cinematographer Barry Abrams really take advantage of this, such as when  a storm starts to whip up midway through the film. Notwithstanding the laughably low-fi "lightning flashes", the approaching storm is well-documented with a series of moody and atmospheric shots.

But even the best setting in the world won't help you if your script is a dud and, sadly, Friday the 13'th dangerously flirts with that descriptor. There's so much filler in the film's 95 minute run time that it's downright ridiculous. And, for the record, I'm not including Walt Gorney's appearances as "Crazy" Ralph in this assessment. That man is a gorram institution and, except for some "For-the- love-of-God-call-'CUT!' already!" scenes of him peddling around on his vintage bike, his frequent prophecies of doom really add to the film's Scooby Doo-ish, camp *slash* creep factor.

I'm also not talking about scenes where the characters are running around the camp in a vain effort to account for their progressively-evaporating pool of friends. That's actually reasonably well done, especially when accompanied by the musical stylings of composer Harry Manfredini. Sure, many of his stings are cribbed directly from Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score but, honestly, without it, Friday the 13'th would be even more turgid than it already is.

No, what I'm talking about are the lingering shots of Annie Phillips (Robbi Morgan) slooooowly strolling through Blairstown, New Jersey. Or that borderline-inappropriate but ultimately dead-end conversation between the camp's new owner Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) and his much younger employee Alice (Adrienne King). Or when Ron Millkie shows up as a comically-unconvincing motorcycle cop named Officer Dorf (!). Or what about that riveting scene where Alice single-handedly brings the film's momentum to a screeching halt by making a cup of coffee in what feels like slow motion?

But, by far, the most egregious and unforgivable example of this is when Alice, Brenda (Laurie Bartram) and Bill (Harry Crosby) all sit down to play a game of Monopoly on screen. And, let me tell ya, folks, if there's anything more boring than playing Monopoly it's watching someone else play Monopoly. Look, I love board games as much as the next guy, but if I ever wanna watch a play though video, I'll just cue up an episode of Shut Up and Sit Down, thank you very much. Granted, it's supposed to be a game of strip Monopoly but after sitting though multiple turns of this shit without so much as a revealed bum or side boob, I'm forced to declare that this is the worst example of board game-related blue-balling in cinema history.

The actors, bless their hearts, do what they can with the wafer-thin material. Adrienne King is charming enough as Alice, but many of her line deliveries are incredibly self-conscious, as if she's trying too hard to EMOTE. Harry Crosby is perfectly milquetoast as Bill Brown and Laurie Bartram is watchable and charismatic as Brenda Jones, even though she's scarcely given anything to do. The same could be said for the incredibly winsome Jeannine Taylor as Marcie. Frankly, a compelling case could be made that she should have been the final girl instead of Alice.

And although he's clearly written that way, Mark Nelson's Ned Rubenstein is the prototypical Friday the 13'th irritant. Between flagrantly disobeying the archery range safety rules, cracking incessant Dad jokes, performing shitty impersonations that were hideously dated in 1980 and dancing around in an embarrassingly-racist caricature of Native Americans, Ned is nothing but a Class-A choad. He's the first in a long, unwanted line of annoying, self-pitying asshole that became a regrettable trope in the series. Frankly, the less said about this lazy excuse for characterization the better.

Much hay has also been made of Kevin Bacon's feature film debut here and, honestly, he's perfectly fine. Truth be told, he doesn't exhibit any more star power than say Laurie Bartram or Jeannine Taylor, but it's also easy to see why he went on to bigger and better things. His death scene is still one of the highlights of the entire series and he does a great job selling the effect, which, sadly, hasn't aged all that well.

Contrary to the harshness of that last statement, I still maintain that the make-up work provided by the legendary Thomas Vincent Savini is still one of the bright lights of an otherwise "M'eh" movie. You have to keep in mind that, prior to the universal application of CGI, practical makeup effects were designed to be fleeting illusions. They were never meant to be paused and closely scrutinized years later on high-def video by nitpicky assholes who gleefully like to point out that the proportions and skin tone for Kevin Bacon's fake torso doesn't even vaguely match his face.

But who cares? Jack's arrow-through-the-throat demise is imaginative and gross. Sorry, but I'll take the artistry of practical makeup effects any day over troweling entire scenes with a spackling of uncanny valley CGI. Having said that, the most harrowing scene in the movie is one that Savini's effect sadly had nothing to with. The film features a truly disturbing moment of animal cruelty in which Bill hacks a real, live snake to pieces with a machete. Speaking as someone who's completely desensitized to the most depraved gore effects imaginable, its the only moment in the movie that I  watch thru a web of interlaced fingers.   

Beyond Kevin Bacon's iconic demise and the murder of an innocent reptile, Marcie get's "axed" a question, Annie's throat gets slit, Steve gets strung up like venison and Bill gets pinned to a cabin door like a moth to a killing board. Sadly many deaths, including poor Brenda's, happen off-screen. I'm not sure if this was done because of budgetary concerns or because Cunningham was legitimately worried that the film was going to get slapped with an "X" rating. Whatever the reason, you have to admit that the film is pretty tame by today's standards, almost quaint.       

Mercifully, the last fifteen minutes of the movie goes to great lengths to redeem all of the pedestrian crap that came before it. As soon as Betsy Palmer arrives on the scene, the whole movie just shoots into the stratosphere. To Cunningham's credit, selecting the former American sweetheart for this role was a masterstroke of stunt-casting. When Palmer suddenly goes from matronly and helpful to menacing and deranged, I can't help but start shifting uncomfortably in my seat.

Yes, I know that revealing Pamela Voorhees as the killer wasn't earned at all. Yes, I know this results in an awkward exposition dump that grinds everything to a halt. Yes, I know the logistics of a middle aged woman effortlessly murdering people who are half her age, hurling them through windows and / or stringing them up like pinatas all over camp strains credibility, but I don't care. As soon as Betsy Palmer starts saying "Kill her, Mommy! Kill her!" in her dead son's voice, I'm instantly creeped out to the max.

So, yeah, as it turns out, this murder spree is motivated entirely by the sort of grief that can drive a mother mad. Presumably, back in the summer of 1957, Pamela was hard at work cooking a meal for the camp's residents when her special needs son, Jason, drowned while swimming in the lake. By her account, the councilors were off bumping uglies instead of watching over her special boy.

In my opinion, this gives Pamela all of the fevered motivation she needs to go a little coo-coo for cocoa puffs. Fearing that the same thing might happen to someone else's child, she's determined to make sure that Camp Crystal Lake will never re-open. Not only does this account for her murderous prologue at the start of the film, she's also the one who's been sabotaging the site for the past twenty two years. Is it logical? No. But, since the death of her beloved boy is clearly the reason why she veered off the I-95 into Crazytown, that's all Victor Miller needed to make her one of the most sympathetic loons in slasher history.

Jason might have been mentally disabled and hideously deformed, but his mom loved him somethin' fierce. And, as it turns out, making Pamela Voorhees the killer actually sheds some real-world insight into screenwriter Victor Miller's complicated relationship with his own mother.

"I took motherhood and turned it on its head and I think that was great fun," he's been quoted as saying. "Mrs. Voorhees was the mother I'd always wanted, a mother who would have killed for her kids."

Kind of a sweet sentiment. In a clinically dysfunctional sorta way.

Regardless, this all leads up to a barely-choreographed and embarrassingly-bad slappy fight between Mrs. Voorhees and final girl Alice, which further calls into doubt Pamela's ability to physically murder so many hearty and hale victims. It ends with one of the most memorable and notorious on-screen decapitations since The Omen

But's that's not quite the end. Because of the impact that Carrie's final cemetery scene had on viewers back in 1976, horror movies to this day still feel obliged to end off with what amount to a cheap YouTube screamer. Fortunately, as Friday the 13'th proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, this can still be done with a lot of impact and panache.

So, after Alice takes about a foot off the top for Mrs. Voorhees, she climbs into a canoe and pushes herself out into the middle of the lake. Dawn breaks and we get a lovely montage of artsy shots showcasing a battered but victorious Alice languishing in the boat, her hand creating gentle ripples in the cold lake water. All the while, this florid, pastoral and soothing composition by Harry Manfredini is playing in the background. The cops show up on site and wave to her from the shore. Alice, seeing this, perks up and goes to wave back.

And then, from out of phreakin' nowhere, a rotten, desiccated, naked Jason pops out of the fucking water, grabs Alice by the neck, and then drags her off the boat and into the water. It happens so quickly, so unexpectedly and so expertly that the viewer is left feeling as if they've just been smoked upside the head with a Louisville Slugger.

But then Cunningham goes ahead and ruins everything with a stupid coda of Alice waking up in the hospital. *bleargh*

But, hey, in the long run, that coda turned out to be a good idea. That way when smarmy dick-heads ask "Hey, how did Jason go from a gnarly rotten lake kid to a full-grown, overall-wearing, bag-headed, pitchfork-wielding troglodyte in the sequel?" the writers can push their glasses back up on their collective noses and say "Well, actually, the thing that popped out of the lake wasn't actually Jason, it was just a figment of Alice's traumatized imagination!"

And that's all well and good. So long as no one bothers to ask why Jason didn't drown in the first place.

But, hey, that's a question best left for a sequel review!

Friday the 13'th scores two and a half stars out of five, with a very charitable tilt up.