Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 6/26/20

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EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: The Story of Fire Saga (CREDIT: John Wilson/Netflix)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (Streaming on Netflix) – Starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as an Icelandic pop duo, just as the Fates predicted.

-Haim, Women in Music Pt. III

‘Frozen II’ Only Makes Sense If You’re From Arendelle

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CREDIT: Disney

In Frozen II, Elsa hears a mysterious voice calling out to her from the forest. There’s some gee-gaw mystical explanation by the end about what that’s all about, but its ultimate purpose seems to be making her realize that she ought to be living on her own out in the forest. It’s hard not to read queer subtext into that, if you’re at all open to the possibility that there could be queer subtext in an animated Disney movie. So that’s how that goes, and meanwhile, there’s plenty more going on elsewhere, as Elsa and Anna stumble across some soldiers who have been fighting each other for decades while also trying to understand the important messages their parents have left for them. Plus, Kristoff attempts to propose to Anna while she keeps misinterpreting him in maddeningly over-the-top fashion, Olaf keeps telling us that water remembers, when ALL OF A SUDDEN, I’m so overwhelmed that I’m now doing a Phil Donahue impression (or at least an impression of Darrell Hammond’s Donahue impression). Arendelle is a busy place. Sometimes it’s exhausting.

I give Frozen II One Million Voices out of a Million and a Half Water Memories.

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: 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