‘Sister of the Groom’ Cranks Up the Angst Way Past 11

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Sister of the Groom (CREDIT: Saban Films/YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Alicia Silverstone, Tom Everett Scott, Jake Hoffman, Mathilde Ollivier, Mark Blum, Charlie Bewley

Director: Amy Miller Gross

Running Time: 92 Minutes

Rating: R for Language, Casual Nudity, and Molly in the Wedding Cake

Release Date: December 18, 2020 (Theaters/Digital/On Demand)

Alicia Silverstone is an immensely charming person, and yet somehow Sister of the Groom has the temerity to ask her to be immensely un-charming. She plays Audrey, the titular sister of the groom, and that’s not an individual who should be commanding attention on the wedding day. But typically a movie’s main character does indeed command the most attention, so we find ourselves at an impasse immediately. That’s not a place I like to find myself with Silverstone, but actors should certainly be allowed to stretch themselves beyond where they’ve been pegged. In this case, that stretch is quite the challenge, and the end result lays bare the difficulty of delivering on it.

Audrey has a lot of stressors in her life, perhaps more than most people do, but she also has a way of behaving, particularly during her brother’s matrimonial weekend, that mainly serves to amplify all that stress. She’s trying to get back into the swing of her architecture career, so she doesn’t appreciate that her bro Liam (Jake Hoffman) has hired her ex-boyfriend for a job she assumed was hers. She also is no big fan of his significantly younger French fiance Clemence (Mathilde Ollivier), but you kind of get the sense that she might not approve of any potential sisters-in-law. On top of all that, she’s viscerally insecure about her pregnancy-altered belly. At least she seems to be affectionate with her husband Ethan (Tom Everett Scott), although it’s not much of a surprise when it becomes clear that there’s actually a lot of strife bubbling barely beneath the surface there.

If you’re a fan of angsty cinematic family gatherings like The Family Stone or Home for the Holidays or (to keep it wedding-themed) Rachel Getting Married, Sister of the Groom might offer something to entertain you. But from my vantage point, it leans too hard into the unpleasantness and struggles to tease out any profundity. I’ve got to at least give Silverstone credit for so thoroughly stripping herself of any emotional vanity. Alas, though, she didn’t convince me that that was a good idea.

Sister of the Groom is Recommended If You Like: Unrelenting angst

Grade: 2 out of 5 Chuppahs

The ‘Valley Girl’ Remake Just Can’t Resist Being a Sugar-Saturated Jukebox Musical

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CREDIT: Orion Classics

Starring: Jessica Rothe, Josh Whitehouse, Chloe Bennet, Jessie Ennis, Ashleigh Murray, Logan Paul, Mae Whitman, Alicia Silverstone, Camila Morrone, Judy Greer, Rob Huebel

Director: Rachel Lee Goldenberg

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Row of Bare Butts Utilized for a Promposal

Release Date: May 8, 2020 (On Demand)

Valley Girl the remake updates a low-key rom-com 80s charmer and turns it into a cotton candy-nostalgia-lensed jukebox musical. The song-and-dance numbers are often buoyant, but I’m more interested in the weirdness lurking around the edges. That said, the synth-heavy, new wave-dominated pop music of this particular decade is more off-kilter than other eras’ popular tunes and plenty of people find it irresistible. So when our lead Valley Girl Julie Richman (Jessica Rothe) intones, “Life was like a pop song, and we knew all the words,” you might think to yourself, “You mean something like ‘We Got the Beat’ by iconic L.A. girl group the Go-Go’s?” And sure enough, everybody on screen promptly starts singing that anthem of musical possession. Or maybe, if you’re like me, during the part when Men Without Hats’ indefatigable “The Safety Dance” pipes up, you realize that it’s a perfect tune for a wedding reception, especially the version in which they spell out the title. The mind bounces around with highly personal ideas when thoroughly familiar songs keep tirelessly piping through the speakers.

When the original Valley Girl came out in 1983, the stereotype of ditzy, superficial, upspeaking teenage female San Fernando Valley residents was already firmly ensconced in American culture. Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon had just released their song “Valley Girl” the year before, after all. So while O.G. VG was self-aware of its setting, it was also still living through its era and thus it wisely took a snapshot instead of a whole panorama. But 2020 VG‘s appetite might be bigger than its tummy. It plays just about everything a little too straight and obvious. The Romeo and Juliet template of two lovers from opposite sides of town is very much intact, as Julie falls for punk rocker Randy (Josh Whitehouse). The modern-day framing device of a grown-up Julie (Alicia Silverstone) telling the story to her own teenage daughter (Camila Morrone) only underscores the predictability. Also a bummer: the casting of YouTuber Logan Paul, who has a reputation for controversial videos that actually prompted the film to be delayed from its original 2018 release date. Although, it’s worth noting that if you’re worried you might be turned off by his presence here, it helps to know that as Julie’s current boyfriend Mickey, he is supposed to come off as a massive tool.

After watching Valley Girl, I started to develop another interpretation after I looked over director Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s filmography, which mainly consists of titles released by notorious mockbuster distributor The Asylum as well as A Deadly Adoption, the bizarrely straightforward Lifetime original movie starring Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. Maybe playing it straight with no comment is just Goldenberg’s sensibility. If you asked her why she cast twentysomethings and thirtysomethings as teenagers, I can imagine her answering, “Isn’t that just how you’re supposed to do things in Hollywood?” (Rothe does at least have a young face, although she has a very grown-up aura.)

Look, when a movie like this one has lines like “Everyone would probably have a total cow if I left” and “Technically speaking, punk is dead,” you kind of start to realize that it’s making fun of itself. And if you’re still worried about a fatal lack of a sense of humor, at least hang around for the moments with Rob Huebel and Judy Greer as Julie’s parents. The two of them (three if you count Huebel’s mustache) are fully alive as the most wonderful exaggerations of pushy parents who have mapped out their kid’s future. Valley Girl, huh? More like “Valley Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Valley Girl is Recommended If You Like: Jukebox musicals, I Love the ’80s, Beach Blanket Bingo

Grade: 3 out of 5 Ronald Reagan Masks

‘The Lodge’ Might Be Too Twisty for Its Own Good, But It’s Still a Chilling New Vision of Cabin Fever

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CREDIT: Thimios Bakatakis/A24/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Starring: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone

Directors: Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Shocking Gunshots, Disturbing Tableaux, and a Little Post-Shower Nudity

Release Date: February 7, 2020

In The Lodge, a couple of kids (Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh) head to a cabin during Christmas break with their dad Richard (Richard Armitage) and his new fiance Grace (Riley Keough). Work duties force Richard to head back home for a few days, which leaves Grace and the kids snowed in due to some, shall we say, inclement weather. And that’s when things start getting weird. The youngsters have resented Grace for as long as they’ve known her, and the tight quarters only amplify those feelings at first. They eventually start to approach a bit of a detente, but then everything suddenly breaks down. The power shuts off, the backup generator won’t work, and everyone’s cell phone is fully uncharged. And on top of all that, the refrigerator and all the cabinets and dresser drawers have been mysteriously cleared out.

Suddenly being cut off from the rest of the world in inhospitable weather is (and has been plenty of times) enough of a premise to introduce extreme physical and psychological danger. But the thorough disappearance of all those provisions adds an immense layer of mystery. Have the kids pulled an elaborate prank on Grace, or vice versa? None of them seem inclined to take their ill will that far, and there doesn’t appear to be enough room for them to hide everything anyway. And nothing about this situation makes any sense as a break-in.

The possibility of a more supernatural explanation butts its way in soon enough. It’s been lingering around there for a while, long before this predicament ever began. Grace, it should very much be noted, is the sole survivor of a religious cult that committed mass suicide when she was twelve years old. She remains haunted by the experience in her dreams and is given to frequent sleepwalking. Maybe that trauma has somehow made its way out of her subconscious and started tangibly affecting those around her. Furthermore, weird items start appearing that make Grace and the kids seriously wonder if they are now in fact dead and are stuck in some sort of purgatory. They then grapple with a fascinating conundrum that much of The Lodge is concerned with: since none of us really know what comes after death, how do we recognize it when we experience it?

Eventually, The Lodge decides that it must end, and in so doing, it moves away from the supernatural and back towards the corporeal. This leads to a whole host of paradoxes that I don’t think I, or any viewer, or anyone involved in this film can provide a full satisfying explanation for. The prosaic and the more out-there elements really do not sit well together. It’s twist upon twist upon twist, though it’s never clear (perhaps purposely) which twist is the truest. The fallout from trying to make sense of it all is a little too disturbing to handle. That said, much of the staging and thematics of the film itself are disturbing in all the right ways.

The Lodge is Recommended If You Like: It Comes at Night, Hereditary

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Gas Heaters

This is a Movie Review: ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ is Disturbingly Unforgettable Horror From the Director of ‘The Lobster’

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CREDIT: Jima (Atsushi Nishijima)/A24

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan, Nicole Kidman, Bill Camp, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: R for Bluntly Presented Gore and Nudity

Release Date: October 20, 2017 (Limited)

Yorgos Lanthimos’ specialty as a writer and a director of actors is strange and disturbing dialogue delivered bluntly and clinically. Given the setting and characters in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it makes a kind of sense that this behavior is typical (due to a combination of professional desensitization and psychopathy), but it is never not unnerving. It works to provide a sense of foreboding for what initially presents itself as a slice-of-life tale that will soon give way to a domestic thriller. But really, what we are being primed for is much more sinister and much more terrifying and in fact qualifies as full-on horror.

Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a cardiac surgeon who takes under his wing Martin (Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan), the teenage son of a patient who died on his operating table. Martin seems interested in medicine himself, spending significant amounts of time shadowing Steven in the hospital. Steven invites him over to the house for dinner, where he charms his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), becomes friendly with his son Bob (Sunny Suljic), and grows romantic with his daughter Kim (Tomorrowland’s Raffey Cassidy). The Murphys seem to notice Martin’s odd behavior, but they never fully acknowledge it. For a while, it seems that this film is just taking place in a world of lunacy, where announcing statements like “our daughter just started menstruating last week” are perfectly natural to declare in public. But once Steven recoils at Martin’s mom’s (Alicia Silverstone) attempt to seduce him by aggressively licking his fingers, it becomes clear that this is terrifying for both the audience and the Murphys.

The foreboding is realized hard and unsettlingly, as Bob and then Kim become paralyzed from the waist down without any clear physical explanation. Martin reveals in great detail to Steven what is going on, apparently confirming that he is the source of this ailment. He could be poisoning them, but it is so supernatural that “hex” or “plague” would be a better word. The obvious motivation here is revenge for the death of his father, but Martin’s unflappably flat speaking voice makes it impossible to get a perfect read on him. Lanthimos may or may not be speaking in metaphors; if so, I am not sure what the message is, but if not, the film is disturbing enough that it works on its own terms.

Ultimately, though, The Killing of a Sacred Deer might end up too untethered from its starting point to be an unqualified success. Indeed, it begins to lose me around the point that Steven is firing a shotgun at his family with a bag over his head. That particular scene – and others like it – are filled with fantastic tension, but they feel like Lanthimos is just filling his thirst for demented horror set pieces instead of focusing on the premise he has already established. Maybe that dissociation is the point, but sometimes the heightening of scares can use a firm direction.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Recommended If You Like: The inexplicableness of The Happening but not the cheesiness, The Lobster, Funny Games

Grade: 3 out of 5 Bleeding Eyeballs