For All of My Life, I See a Lot of Movies. ‘All My Life’ is One of Them.

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All My Life (CREDIT: Patti Perret/Universal Pictures)

Starring: Jessica Rothe, Harry Shum Jr., Kyle Allen, Chrissie Fit, Jay Pharoah, Marielle Scott, Keala Settle, Ever Carradine, Mario Cantone, Jon Rudnitsky, Josh Brener

Director: Marc Meyers

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Typical Brief Language-Related Reasons

Release Date: December 4, 2020

My biggest emotional connection with All My Life came at the very end when we saw footage of the real Jennifer Carter and Solomon Chau, the couple whose story inspired the film, as it made me go, “Oh yeah, it said, ‘Inspired by true events’ at the beginning.” In between, I had pretty much forgotten the real life aspect, as nothing particularly stranger-than-fiction appeared to be happening. Perhaps the real Jenn and Sol’s romance was just as pedestrian as what ended up on screen, although I’m sure it didn’t feel unremarkable to them. Seeing as their story caught the attention of big-time Hollywood executives, it surely must have been passionate somewhere along the way. So I kind of wish I could have watched their entire wedding video instead, because what I actually watched felt like it was written by an Algorithm instructed to create “Generic Heterosexual American Rom-Com 2020.”

Surely it didn’t have to be this way, as we have a couple of fine leads in the form of Jessica Rothe as Jenn and Glee alum Harry Shum Jr. as Sol. Rothe is of course preternaturally charming in the Happy Death Day movies, and while Shum hasn’t broken out on quite the same level as some of his New Directions colleagues, we know that he’s a bona fide song-and-dance man. Let these two kick loose, why don’t you, All My Life! What I haven’t mentioned up until this point, but what is pretty crucial to the premise, is that this story pivots on a malignant cancer diagnosis that interrupts wedding preparations. So tragedy is hanging over the whole affair, but clearly this movie nevertheless wants to be about living life – ALL OF YOUR LIFE! – while you still can.

We need to see these characters doing just that, and we also need to be able to enjoy it vicariously. Now I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you what I was feeling, and it wasn’t vicarious enjoyment. Rather, it was a mix of confusion, digestion (or indigestion) of banality, and just a profound sense that I’m not connecting to these people. Jenn eats Ding Dongs for dinner at one point, I guess because it’s supposed to be goofy and quirky? At another point, Jenn and Sol dance in a water fountain, I guess because Friends is part of our collective cultural memory? Eventually Sol loses his sense of taste as a side effect of his cancer treatment, and that’s a big deal because he’s a chef, and that’s one of the few moments that I genuinely understand. This movie seems to have selected its name from the “Department of Generic Titles,” but I think a better idea would have been to go with the moniker “Loss of Taste” and then set everything in motion from that starting point.

All My Life is Recommended If You Like: Generic covers of Oasis songs

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Meet-Cutes

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

Movie Review: ‘Happy Death Day 2U’ Repeats Everything, But Nothing Was Ever the Same


CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Suraj Sharma, Sarah Yarkin, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Steve Zissis

Director: Christopher Landon

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Comically Absurd Death Scenes

Release Date: February 13, 2019

Happy Death Day 2U is a tricky movie to review while avoiding spoilers, because a lot of the fun is derived from the glut of surprises that the plot has in store. That may sound unlikely for a sequel to a film about someone repeating the same day over and over again. But it is true that one of 2U‘s great strengths is its unpredictability. In that sense, it is most reminiscent of The Cabin in the Woods, which is similarly impossible to talk about without spoiling at least a tad. But also like Cabin, Happy Death Day 2U is so chock-a-block full of twists that it is impossible to spoil entirely. So even if you go in knowing the first twist, there are about twenty-five more waiting for you, which is quite an accomplishment for any sequel. I will try to be as non-specific as possible for the rest of this review, but if you want to be thoroughly unspoiled, stop here and just know that 2U succeeds wildly in its go-for-broke mentality. (But if anyone wants to get deeper into the details, please feel free to send a comment my way because I happy to talk about this movie as much as possible.)

The challenge of any time loop narrative is making each successive go-round interesting instead of frustrating in its sameness. That pitfall would seem exponentially more challenging for a sequel. As the person who has to live it, Tree Gelbman is suitably enraged, perhaps even deranged, about being stuck in the predicament she thought she had just escaped. It plays to Jessica Rothe’s comic strengths to be able to just scream at the forces of fate torturing her. But it turns out that this same loop is just different enough for Tree and the audience to be optimistic. The tone shifts from the original so significantly, in fact, that 2U is essentially in an entirely different genre than its predecessor (to say which genre would constitute a spoiler). In that way, it is like Aliens, which shifted from the one-by-one elimination horror of Alien into a war-style action flick. That change was understandable given the succession from Ridley Scott to James Cameron. But in this case, Christopher Landon stayed on as director (while also taking over scripting duties from Scott Lobdell). That diverse tonal skillset is heartening to see in any filmmaker, and it makes me believe that the Happy Death Day franchise could actually pull off a third entry that is hinted at the end here.

Other highlights include beefing up the best parts of the first film. Tree gets wrung through an even more outrageous death montage, this time involving electrocution, skydiving in a bikini, and falling from a clock tower (in a possible nod to another time-based franchise). Meanwhile, Tree’s sorority sister Danielle is even more fleshed out as her own singular brand of clueless. Rachel Matthews has only a few credits to her name, but she deserves to be a star based on her Happy Death Day performances alone. With all this surplus of beef, 2U is perhaps a little busy. The slasher aspects might actually be unnecessary, though they do provide ample tension. Overall, this film has such a strong intellectual foundation for something so cheeky and demented that any slight misstep is easily forgiven once the next mind-tickling idea comes along.

Happy Death Day 2U is Recommended If You Like: Happy Death Day, Back to the Future Part II, Primer, Rick and Morty

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Loops

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Please Stand By’ as Dakota Fanning Tries on Autism and ‘Star Trek’ Fandom

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CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Toni Collette, Alice Eve, River Alexander, Jessica Rothe, Michael Stahl-David, Patton Oswalt

Director: Ben Lewin

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Few Frank Mentions About Bodily Functions and an Emotional Breakdown or Two

Release Date: January 26, 2018 (Limited Theatrically and On Demand)

Early on in Please Stand By, Wendy’s (Dakota Fanning) Cinnabon co-worker Nemo (Tony Revolori) gifts her with a mix CD, which has me thinking, “Do people even make mix CD’s anymore?” As someone who believes in the virtue of simultaneously embracing both new and outdated forms of technology, I do not object to the presence of music on physical media (my own CD collection is still hefty and its recent slowdown in growth is due mostly to a dwindling in space and not a newfound preference for digital), but it does stick out as odd in a film that I am firmly certain is supposed to be taking place in the present day. In general, there are few, if any, clear markers indicating when Please Stand By is set. The best we have to go on is the fact that Wendy has an iPod, which tells us that the time must be no earlier than 2001.

It is fitting that Wendy’s story has a somewhat out-of-time quality to it. She is autistic and accordingly sticks to a strict routine, one that she has probably spent years firmly establishing. (That still doesn’t explain why her friend from work is still into CD’s, but whatever.) I believe that autistic characters have been well-represented enough in film and television that any single character does not have to bear the burden of representing ALL autistic people. And that is helpful, because while Wendy’s autism does play a major part in her story, it is specific in ways that go beyond that.

Ultimately from a certain angle this is a pretty simple road trip movie starring a girl and her chihuahua. They are heading out to California so that Wendy can hand-deliver her 500-page Star Trek script to Paramount Studios for a fan contest. She missed the mailing deadline due to stress involving family, and now her sister (Alice Eve) and caretaker (Toni Collette) are tracking her down to make sure she’s okay, seeing as she’s never been on her own before. This is a story of fandom, focused around a fan with an unfathomably deep interior life.

There is not all that much unique about Please Stand By. There are plenty of stories about obsessive fans, as well as ones about autistic people who struggle to connect with those around them. And it is no surprise that when you combine those two elements, you get someone who identifies deeply with Mr. Spock, as we have seen that plenty of times already as well. My Star Trek knowledge is sporadic (I’ve only seen the reboot films and the first episode of Discovery), but I believe I know enough about the major themes to say that Please Stand By does right by its inspirations. This is the sort of film that gives what is mostly a cameo outsize billing, but it feels justified: Patton Oswalt plays a police officer who speaks Klingon and makes the sort of day-to-day connection that Wendy has always been looking for. It is not instantly transformative, but it is the crux that represents the film’s easily digestible, reaffirming, humanistic message.

Please Stand By is Recommended If You Like: Star Trek (especially if you identify with Spock), Little Miss Sunshine, Patton Oswalt Cameos

Grade: 3 out of 5 Mix CD’s

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Forever My Girl’ Could Be Charming If It Weren’t So Careless with Its Emotional Beats

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CREDIT: Jacob Yakob/Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Alex Roe, Jessica Rothe, John Benjamin Hickey, Abby Ryder Fortson, Tyler Riggs, Peter Cambor, Gillian Vigman

Director: Bethany Ashton Wolf

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: PG for Keeping Deep-Seated Anger and Frustration Mostly Polite

Release Date: January 19, 2018

In gooey romances like Forever My Girl, we always find our way back to the ones who we truly love and who truly love us. But I wonder how someone like country music superstar Liam Page (Alex Roe) ever could have lost himself in the first place. Because when the facts are laid out, he just does not seem like the type of guy who would ever want to leave his lovely fiancée Josie (Jessica Rothe) at the altar. And when I ponder what it means that he in fact does do that, the implications are quite troubling, and I wish writer/director Bethany Ashton Wolf (adapting the book of the same name by Heidi McLaughlin) had shown more care in reckoning with all that.

Eight years have passed since Liam has bailed on marriage, cutting off all contact with Josie, his dad (John Benjamin Hickey), his friends, and everyone else in his hometown of Saint Augustine, Louisiana (referred to as just “Saint” by the locals) in the process. Now he is selling out stadiums, thanks to the success of his banal party-bro country songs with lyrics like “don’t water down my whiskey.” But he has always held on to a sort of talisman from his past life: his old flip phone from high school, as a voicemail saved there contains his last communication from Josie, sent to him just a few days after he jilted her. When he hears that one of his friends has died in an accident, he abandons the last stop of his tour to return home, and I get the sense that he’s been wanting to escape the big time for a while (more on that later).

As these stories tend to go, it turns out that Josie has a 7-year-old daughter, Billy (a poised Abby Ryder Fortson), and of course Liam is the dad, but because of his town-wide ghosting, he never knew about her until now. It wouldn’t be the best idea for Liam to suddenly become a major part of Billy’s life, considering how disruptive that can be for a young child, not to mention Liam is a not-very-independent adult who can barely take care of himself. But of course, you can see where this is going: Liam learns how to be a good dad, he and Billy bond over music, and he and Josie fall back in love, because they never really fell out of love in the first place.

While none of this reinvents the wheel (in fact, it rolls right along with it), it is not necessarily a problem. What is a problem, though, is the mishap that threatens to upend this new stability for such a silly, unnecessary reason. And compounding that are all the emotional beats to get Liam and Josie to their final resolution. Alex Roe and Jessica Rothe are perfectly lovely and winning. We can be happy to see them end up together, but it’s hard not to feel cheated to see some crappy behavior go unrectified.

Ultimately I am left puzzling over why in the first place Liam left the things that seem to make him happiest. His inner conflict is never presented as a fight between the glories of fame versus the comfort and responsibility of family. Nor is it even a matter of professional ambition versus personal happiness. Just about everyone in his life is totally supportive of him. Even his publicity team and handlers are good friends for the most part, advising him to take all the time he needs to mourn, despite being on the hook for lost tour revenue. So why then does he struggle to commit to Josie when it is clear she makes him fulfilled? The best guess I can come up with is that he must be suffering from anxiety, or some pathological fear or distrust of happiness, or some other mental condition. If only the film had realized what a broken soul were at its center, then it could have been genuinely touching.

Forever My Girl is Recommended If You Like: The Nicholas Sparks Brand of Romance, Cloying country music

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Hasty Reunions

This Is a Movie Review: The Paradox of Life is That a ‘Happy Death Day’ Makes a Happy Birthday Worth Celebrating


CREDIT: Universal Pictures

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

Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Rob Mello

Director: Christopher B. Landon

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Cheekiness Towards Violence and Sex

Release Date: October 13, 2017

Legitimately great remakes can come from both good or bad originals. The key is to offer a fresh spin. Happy Death Day is not officially a remake of Groundhog Day, but the influence is obvious (and cheekily acknowledged within the narrative). So I can believe that this new splashy horror flick was conceived as a redo of the Bill Murray time loop classic but with a slasher spin, and if indeed it was, that reveals a lot about why it succeeds as well as it does.

The film jolts into its adrenaline-fueled default as college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe, probably best known as the roommate in the green dress from La La Land) shoots awake on the morning of her birthday in an unfamiliar bed after a night of blacked out debauchery. The day ends with her stabbed to death by a killer in a creepy baby mask (which is inexplicably also the school mascot). But it’s her lucky day, or her eternally unlucky day, as she then wakes up in the same spot on the same date and meets her demise all over again, and then comes back to life again and repeats it all for an endless cycle of death and rebirth. But living like a phoenix ain’t so fire when you’re stuck in an eternal loop of cattiness, superficiality, and a refusal to confront lasting emotional pain.

Tree’s story matches up with that of Phil Connors not just in terms of mechanics but also spiritually. Ultimately, Groundhog Day is about the path to becoming a better person by unavoidably being confronted with past mistakes. Happy Death Day’s purpose is very much the same, surprisingly so for its genre but undeniably so regardless. A little more specifically, it examines how the ever-lingering possibility of death can spur someone on to living her best life by being the best possible version of herself. Death also has a major presence in Groundhog Day, but mostly on the edges (Phil’s resets don’t require him to bite it); in Happy Death Day, it is writ large.

Grief and loss loom uncomfortably in Tree’s life. Her mother, with whom she shared a birthday, passed away a few years earlier, and she has refused to really confront her lingering emptiness. Instead, she hides behind drinking, random hookups, and catty banter with her sorority sisters. Initially, she comes off as a typical slasher archetype: the superficial queen bitch whose demise the audience craves. But the loop is utilized to crack away at that cliché and uncover the genuine person underneath, allowing the audience to instead fall in love with her.

If this all sounds unwelcomingly weighty, it should be noted that the emotional import is handled efficiently and entertainingly enough that it does not get in the way of the wildly intense horror camp. The rating may be PG-13, but there is little restraint in the dialogue’s colorfulness. Scott Lobdell’s witty script displays influence from the likes of Mean Girls, Heathers, nighttime soaps, and other self-aware horror films. A few choice lines include “Would you please stop staring at me like I took a dump on your mom’s head?” or surmising that déjà vu means that “someone’s thinking of you while they’re masturbating.” Even sillier outbursts like, “Show your face, you pussy!” earn their stripes with the power of convicted delivery.

Happy Death Day wisely leaves out any prosaic explanation about why Tree is stuck in the loop. There is some exploration about how the injuries of each death carry over into the new repeated day, but that thread is ultimately discarded. Focusing on that element only when it is useful is a bit of a cheat, but an understandable one. From a mystery standpoint, Happy Death Day is much better at investigating the killer’s identity than it is at examining metaphysics. Like a lot of great twisty thrillers, the narrative leads you right to the culprit but then swerves into a detour. It is enough to make you hysterically scream right along with Tree at the big philosophical questions of a life gone topsy-turvy.

Happy Death Day is Recommended If You Like: Scream crossed with Mean Girls but wish both of those films had been influenced by Groundhog Day

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 Tylenols