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

It’s Time to Get ‘Buffaloed’ and Learn About Debt Collection!

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CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

Starring: Zoey Deutch, Judy Greer, Jermaine Fowler, Noah Reid, Jai Courtney

Director: Tanya Wexler

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But It Would Probably Be R for Everyone Acting Like a Bunch of Jagoffs

Release Date: February 14, 2020 (Limited)

Hey Buffaloed Zoey, what did you kill, Buffaloed Zoey?

Please, dear readers, tell me that you are familiar with the Beatles song “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” for otherwise that opening line will sound the ramblings of a madman. (Though even if you get the reference, you might still find me a madman.)

Is Peg Dahl, Zoey Deutch’s character in the Tanya Wexler-directed Buffaloed, indeed in the mood for killing? You could certainly say so. She’s grown up lower-middle class in Buffalo, New York, and her ambitions are a little too ravenous to be contained by a city with a small-town midwestern sensibility. She’d like an Ivy League education very much, please, but that doesn’t seem too likely without crushing student debt. So she turns to hustling, which lands her in prison when she’s barely old enough to be tried as an adult. Ergo, no college loans, but plenty of legal fees. Debt collectors soon get on her back, but she flips the script, realizing that she’s pretty good at convincing people to do things that are not necessarily in their best interest and thus starts working for the collection agency with an eye towards fast-tracking the clearing of her debt.

Peg’s a bit of a wide-eyed idealist, or at least as wide-eyed idealist as you can be when working in an industry built upon preying on people at their most vulnerable. But soon enough she learns about the more unscrupulous practices, like collecting on the same debt multiple times from people who have forgotten they are already in the clear. Collectors get away with this baloney since the industry is nowhere near as regulated as it needs to be. But Peg sets upon forming her own agency, vowing to do it all aboveboard, to the incredulity of everyone around her. Ultimately, naturally enough, she realizes that you cannot ever really clean up something that is dirty to its core. This is activist, occasionally fourth wall-breaking, cinema, delivered with a jagoff spirit. In that way it’s a sort of Big Short Jr. If it somehow, some way, leads to more robust protections for the indebted, then it ought to be considered a positive force for humanity. (And if instead it just makes you cackle for an hour and a half, then that’s okay, too.)

Buffaloed is Recommended If You Like: The Big Short, My Cousin Vinny, Judges who eat while on the bench

Grade: 3 out of 5 Buffalo Wings

Movie Review: Cate Blanchett Brings Us All Along to Antarctica in the Low-Key Unique ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’

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CREDIT: Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, James Urbaniak, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Richard Linklater

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Arguments Between Neighbors and Family Members

Release Date: August 16, 2019

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the sort of movie that I don’t want to say whether it’s good or bad. I’d rather just talk about what makes it unique. Because when you see more than a hundred movies per year like I do, uniqueness can seem like an endangered species, so when I come across it, I feel compelled to deconstruct it. First off, this movie doesn’t fully realize its premise until about two-thirds of the way through its running time – and that’s not a criticism! The title would seem to suggest that architect Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) runs right off from her family as fast as she can, but it actually takes quite a while until she is on her own in Antarctica. And get this – that destination was originally meant to be a family trip with her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) and daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), so it’s not exactly like it’s supposed to be the most unpredictable hiding place.

You may have noticed that I mentioned that Bernadette is an architect, and that’s significant because this is a movie that cares A LOT about architecture. Director Richard Linklater apparently has a hidden passion for construction. Either that or he did his homework, because significant chunks of Where’d You Go, Bernadette could pass for an architecture mockumentary. The other major upending of expectations comes in the examination of Bernadette’s mental breakdown, or lack thereof. Everyone in her life is a little worried about her, but it turns out that the best solution is much less drastic – and much more fulfilling – than this genre has us conditioned to anticipate.

Pretty much everything about Where’d You Go, Bernadette is both slightly off-key and generally pleasant. A marriage that looks like it’s on the brink of disaster is actually quite healthy! Kristen Wiig plays a queen bee suburban mom who it turns out is actually a genuine human being! There’s a dog named Ice Cream! Anyone who is mildly adventurous will find something to enjoy.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is Recommended If You Like: Crucial James Urbaniak Supporting Performances

Grade: Not Applicable out of 5 Russian Identity Thieves

This Is a Movie Review: The Latest ‘Halloween’ Examines the Brutal Roles of Killer and Survivor

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CREDIT: Ryan Green/Universal Studios

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Nick Castle, Toby Huss

Director: David Gordon Green

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Relentless Knife Piercings All Over the Body

Release Date: October 19, 2018

What if your purpose in life is to kill people? What if your purpose in life is to be in a decades-long struggle with that killer? Horror sequels that come many years after the original and feature the same main character unavoidably grapple with matters relating to the circular nature of fate. Halloween, the same-named sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 original, is especially committed to those questions in a way that deepens the meanings of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode without straying too ridiculously far from their initial incarnations.

As a direct sequel to the 40-years-earlier initially entry, this Halloween ignores everything that happened in all previous sequels and reboots. It is thus somewhat confusing that it opts for the identical title, but it is also thematically appropriate. Director David Gordon Green and his co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley are working under the presupposition that where evil struck once, it will strike again, in much the same manner that it did before. That is certainly what Laurie Strode believes, with Jamie Lee Curtis returning to her iconic role once again by jumping headlong into the disaster preparedness lifestyle. Michael has been locked away since the night of his rampage, but Laurie is convinced he will escape and kill again. Her relentless focus on readying herself for that probability has helped her survive, but it has also ruined her relationship with her daughter (Judy Greer) and anyone else she has ever been close with.

Green understands what made Carpenter’s approach so effective, as he similarly relies on tension-building instead of jump scares when showing Michael at work. We see more of the bloody brutality than we used to, which in one way is an indication that it is so hard to shock anymore but in another way is so frightening in its implication that rehabilitation may be impossible in some cases. For Michael, killing is practically a vocation. There are attempts by a few characters to explain his motivations, but he remains so terrifying mysterious, because the explanation ultimately never goes beyond the tautology of “he kills because he has to kill.” While Laurie is one of his favorite targets, there is a mythically eternal element to their struggle that suggests that he cannot ever actually kill her and also that she cannot ever kill him. Thus, at the moment that she gains the upper hand and we see his confused reaction, it is devastating. Not because we sympathize with the killer, but because the saga may very well have finally reached the point when it must end.

Halloween is Recommended If You Like: Halloween (1978), Disaster preparedness

Grade: 4 out of 5 Stabbings

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ Keeps It Cool for the Summer

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2018.

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Abby Ryder Fortson, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Hannah John-Kamen, Laurence Fishburne, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Michelle Pfeiffer, Randall Park

Director: Peyton Reed

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Large-Scale and Small-Scale Action Movie Destruction

Release Date: July 6, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp has left me feeling a lot more peaceful than other recent Marvel movies. I would it put about on the same quality level as Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, but those blockbusters left me with nagging bits of emptiness, whereas Paul Rudd and company just give off good vibes. That is partly a function of my own expectations, but it is also a matter of how this franchise and its sub-franchises are promoted. The excursions to Wakanda and the garbage planet promised that they would be unprecedented game-changers. Whether or not they lived up to that hype, it is hard to match the buoyancy of their ad campaigns, and it takes effort for audiences to avoid every commercial. But with the original Ant-Man and now with The Wasp, you can just come in, be chill, and not have to worry about it being the best movie ever.

Director Peyton Reed and his team of five credited screenwriters (including Rudd) maintain those good vibes by allowing for some conflict, but avoiding true evil, and establishing that those who are at odds are ultimately really on the same team as each other. The main story thrust is the recovery of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the “Quantum Realm,” a subatomic space where the normal laws of space and time do not apply. Her husband Hank (Michael Douglas) and daughter Janet, aka the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), have the science skills to track her down, but they need the help of Ant-Man Scott Lang, as his previous venture into and escape from the Quantum Realm has allowed Janet to establish him as a point of contact. Standing in their way is a black market dealer (Walton Goggins), who sniffs out a big potential profit, but he does not have the killer instinct to tear them down. More serious are those who represent the skeletons in Hank’s closet, but their threat is neutralized by the ultimate realization that they can solve each other’s problems together.

A-M and the W has genuine, successful humor to match its laid-back style. The comedy in Marvel movies often has the cadence of a joke without actually being funny, but here there is a cast that is trained to find the laughter. Rudd obviously has more of a comedy background than any other Marvel headliner. Michael Peña delivers another round of his motor-mouthed, very detail-oriented storytelling. And the most delightful subplot features Fresh Off the Boat‘s Randall Park as a fastidious FBI agent hounding Scott while he remains under house arrest. If their jobs did not require them to be enemies, they would be friends for the ages.

It is certainly odd that Ant-Man and the Wasp arrives in the apocalyptic wake of Infinity War, but die-hard MCU fans will be happy to discover that the connective tissue is clear and satisfying. And those who are tired of every superhero movie being about the end of the world will be happy that that connectivity does not get in the way of everyone just having a good time.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is Recommended If You Like: The Marvel Cinematic Universe but with lower stakes

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Quantum Realms

This Is a Movie Review: ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Makes for a Bleak But Transfixing Spectacle

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

Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller

Director: Matt Reeves

Running Time: 142 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for War Violence Shot Artfully Enough to Avoid an R Rating

Release Date: July 14, 2017

The prequel/reboot Planet of the Apes series has been doing a fine job at that most pervasively needless of tasks: providing origin stories for elements from the original that never needed to be explained. The trick is to make those explanations part of their own particular tales that are compelling enough on their own. In the latest entry, War for the Planet of the Apes, the spotlighted origin is humankind’s loss of speech, which is essentially something that inexplicably and uncontrollably just starts happening, but is also presumably related to the virus from 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes that began to wipe out humanity and boosted apes’ intelligence. Far from a minor plot point, this provides the essential motivation for those who seek to stand in the way of nature.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the rest of the apes have been living mostly happily in the civilization they have constructed for themselves, but the peace between species they have brokered has only ever been uneasy. There is a vestige of what remains of intelligent humans that is intent on reasserting their dominance, most ferociously in the form of Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), a ruthless fighter who justifies his tactics with a form of genetic engineering tinged with desperation. When a sneak attack by McCullough kills several of Caesar’s loved ones, the stage is set for an ultimate standoff. While Caesar’s reaction flirts somewhat uncomfortably with revenge territory, the conflict remains more generally compelling, as his larger motivation is protecting apes and simply wanting this war to end. The bleakness of ending war with more war (even in self-defense) is not ignored.

War for the Planet of the Apes can easily be read as a metaphor in which a dominant social group finds the status quo upended and tries to swing the pendulum back. Those moments can easily be found now and at many other points in the history of society. But what is remarkable is how much that is a side effect. This series is primarily devoted to commenting upon and analyzing itself more than anything else. That commitment extends to the thorough chilliness of the vision. It is never specified if the setting is in a particularly wintry area, or if the future is eternally snowy, or both. Either way, the effect is oppressive. There are moments of levity (most memorably from Steve Zahn’s “Bad Ape,” a jittery former circus animal who has gone a little loopy from cabin fever), but overall, this is a film that takes days to swallow to bear appreciating its majesty.

War for the Planet of the Apes is Recommended If You Like: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Apocalypse Now, The Searchers

Grade: 4 out of 5 Machine Gun-Toting Apes

This Is a Movie Review: Wilson

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

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer

Director: Craig Johnson

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: R for Fun-Loving Sociopathy

Release Date: March 24, 2017 (Limited)

If you found out that you had a daughter that you thought was aborted but was actually given up for adoption, would you track her down to cheer her on from afar like a proud papa? If so, that is an understandable instinct, but you might want to be discrete, considering the typical legal arrangements that prevent birth parents from contacting their adopted children. But Wilson the movie and Wilson the Woody Harrelson-portrayed title character have no such reservations. Instead, this father introduces himself to his long-lost daughter by mercilessly beating up her bullies.

Based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay), Wilson the film at first glance appears to be a Misanthropist’s Guide to Life. But while Wilson the man does have major problems with humankind’s typical priorities, he actually does like people. He just wishes they would not so readily buy into the boring routine that society prescribes. His love is a playfully confrontational one. Plenty of people adopt a cutesy singsong voice when talking to dogs; but it is those few among us like Wilson who use that voice to spout some insane life philosophy. Or at least, it sounds like insanity to everyone else, but for him, it is the only way to be.

Harrelson emphasizes Wilson’s fun-loving nature; his joy is infectious, but also dangerous. He can string you along for a weekend getaway, or a delightful afternoon at the park, but he could also lead you behind bars. The legal troubles that bedevil Wilson feel unfair, but also perfectly understandable. Whatever dichotomy there appears to be here is less a contradiction and more a yin/yang. Wilson is not railing against phonies – he just wants everyone to loosen up. His film is a slightly unnerving adventure, but you gotta come along for the ride, man.

Wilson is Recommended If You LikeFight Club But Wish It Were More Slice-of-Life, EnlightenedNebraska

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Cute Dogsitters