Go See It

REVIEW: Valley Girl

United Artists Releasing
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 102 minutes
Director: Rachel Lee Goldenberg

My Rating: 6.5/10

As a critic I always try to divorce my movie-watching experience from the film I am watching. For example, it is not fair to fault a film being bad if I am in an unusually bad mood, or for it to be boring if I am unusually tired, etc; however, sometimes such objectivity is impossible as I am human and my viewing experience impacts my overall experience. Such may prove to be the case with the new remake of Valley Girl—although, I will try to be as objective as possible.

Valley Girl (2020) ended up being the first new movie I have seen in a theater environment for several months since the Coronavirus quarantine began. I watched it at my local drive-in movie theater called the Redwood Drive-in Theatre. I’ve been to this theater before but it had been a while as it is a bit of a drive from my home.

There are pluses and minuses to seeing a movie at the drive-in; but as the only option available, it was refreshing to see a new movie on some kind of big screen! Since I am on a strict no-salt diet right now I didn’t have my usual popcorn, but I had snacks and turned my FM radio to the correct station, and watched my movie to my heart’s content. It was great!

So how about the actual movie: it is not perfect but overall I had a good time with Valley Girl. The original with Nicolas Cage is also a lot of fun but not a nostalgic favorite of mine. I don’t know what people who are super attached to it will think, but I think the decision to make the film a musical was inspired. Overall it was a bubbly, effervescent, fun film with a very likable leading presence from Jessica Rothe.

Chloe Bennet, Jessica Rothe, Ashleigh Murray and Jessie Ennis in a scene of Valley Girl (2020) | United Artists Releasing.

In the film Alicia Silverstone plays an older Julie Richman (Jessica Rothe), narrating her life experiences to her daughter. In particular, she tells the story of when she fell in love with the bad boy from the other side of town named Randy (Josh Whitehouse). Her preppy friends don’t understand her decision nor do her parents (played by Judy Greer and Rob Huebel).

Valley Girl is a high school love story so it plays out as you would expect, and that is fine. What sets this film apart (and what will probably be divisive) is their choice to make it a jukebox musical. In fact, the official soundtrack of Valley Girl has over 20 numbers on it. I’m a very easy sell when it comes to musicals and this had me sold. The musical numbers are bright, fun and full of energy.

The downside to Valley Girl is the acting. While Rothe is good, most of the other performances (particularly YouTuber Logan Paul as her evil ex-boyfriend) leave something to be desired. I was hoping he would only be a cameo but he has a good number of lines and he delivers them like the amateur he is. Whitehouse is also pretty bland and uninteresting as our male lead. He certainly ain’t anything close to Nicholas Cage, but who is?

Jessica Rothe and Josh Whitehouse in a scene of Valley Girl (2020) | United Artists Releasing.

Mae Whitman also appears as Whitehouse’s rebellious sister Jack, and she’s great as usual. I would just like Hollywood to start casting her in more adult roles outside of these kinds of high school films—she’s a great actress and she deserves it.

Nevertheless, Valley Girl is filmed with a lot of energy and personality by director Rachel Lee Goldenberg. I enjoyed Rothe in the lead, the 80’s fashion and sensibilities, and the fun musical numbers. That’s certainly enough for me to give it a recommendation. Plus, if you can see it in a drive-in near you GO! You’ll have a blast. At least I did!

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

Here’s a look at my drive-in experience and actually seeing a new movie during the Coronavirus pandemic!

REVIEW: Onward

PIXAR
Rated: PG
Run Time: 103 minutes
Director: Dan Scanlon

Pixar lives in its own caliber of animated films because they have such a way of telling unique and heartwarming stories. They stay true to this claim once again with their latest tale, Onward. It ticks the following boxes: a buddy comedy, superhero origin story, and fantasy adventure. As always, the animation is incredible. From a scene where the viewer gets to see dust animated in such a way that has you thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know dust floating could be so entrancing,” to the details in facial expressions where a character’s slightest facial movements have you feeling exactly what they’re feeling.

In Onward, two brothers—Barley (voiced by Chris Pratt) and Ian (voiced by Tom Holland)—go on a quest across their land to bring their father back from the dead for one day. They follow clues, go to dangerous places, have hiccups along the way, and get into brotherly tiffs. This aspect of the film gave me major Goonies vibes, in the best way. What could have easily been predictable was elevated by humor, great world-building, and subtle callbacks throughout the film. My one critique is the musical score. Michael and Jeff Denna (who also composed the music for The Good Dinosaur) tried to create an 80’s-rock vibe for this soundtrack, and for me, it didn’t leave me in awe. Most Pixar movies have soundtracks that immediately stand out while watching the film, but that was not the case for Onward. The music was definitely not bad, it was just simply missing that little something extra that makes Pixar scores so special. 

While the basic plot was familiar (two youngsters going on a dangerous journey following clues in search of something magical) the world in which the story took place was unique. Sure, it has familiar fantastical elements—manticore, elves, unicorns, wizards—but the way the creator put his modern twist on the fantasy made it so much fun to watch. For example, Barley plays a game similar to Dungeons & Dragons, which was such a fun and nostalgic element to the world. Additionally, the B characters, Barley and Ian’s mom (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and The Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) added to the story in a comical way. Their characters helped make this film well-rounded and relatable to women and parents. Lastly, the way magic is portrayed as something you have to work really hard to master, was great. I loved the way it felt like when a superhero is first learning to control their powers; and when they finally are able to use them in awesome ways, it is so satisfying as a viewer.

Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt respectively) in a scene of Onward | PIXAR

In all, Onward is an original story with such a fresh feel to it. The ending will have you surprised, with your insides feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, as they should after watching a Pixar film. Other classic Pixar elements in the movie are the “Easter Eggs” and callbacks. Not only does it reference other Disney/Pixar films in exciting and subtle ways, but also has some callbacks to small things throughout the film. I can’t wait to see it again to discover more of these special moments that make the viewing experience a unique one with each new watch.

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

REVIEW: The Way Back

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated: R
Run Time: 108 minutes
Director: Gavin O’Connor

It’s been darn near impossible to escape news of Ben Affleck lately; his very public battles with very personal demons (and professional “failures”) coincide so closely to his character in The Way Back that I’d be remiss without mentioning it. It’s guaranteed to color how you approach the film. The press rounds he’s been making feel more like an exploration of his life’s struggles than advertising for the film. How much more of the latter is it than the former? I have no way to truly tell, but if I let the film inform my answer then I have to lean towards honesty and healing.

At the risk of sounding insensitive, I have to say that Ben Affleck is perfect for the role of Jack Cunningham. One could argue that this is his best performance—Affleck is usually playing some degree of Affleck—but it’s clearly his most emotional. It’s not emotion for acting’s sake either; it’s a real kind of rawness to see a man succumbing to addiction: you get the peaks and the valleys. You get the “I’m fine,” and the “I’ll do better next time,” and the “give me one more chance.” You get the incomprehensible decisions. Those are staples of these stories. The tropes. We expect them. But the internal struggle is what The Way Back portrays so much better than other films like it. Jack offers generic excuses when it comes to his alcoholism, but only because he numbs himself from a truth more painful than he thinks he can bear—Jack is also the one his Alma Mater calls to coach their basketball team. 

This is the kind of plot that screams melodrama (and in less capable hands it would be just that). Gavin O’Connor has a knack for making a compelling story out of underdog situations and I applaud him for the subtle subversion in a film like this. He did the same for Warrior, and even found a way to ground The Accountant. I don’t see The Way Back as inspirational: I see it more as cautionary, designed to cut away at judgment and foster pathos and empathy. The fires in these people’s lives didn’t light themselves and they won’t be extinguished by winning a handful of league games. I respect O’Connor for understanding that and reflecting it in his story.

Jack Cunningham (played by Ben Affleck) looks on as his basketball team celebrates a victory in The Way Back | Warner Bros. Pictures

That brings us back to Mr. Affleck, doesn’t it? There’s an obvious synergy that exists in viewing the film. He needed this project for his own sake, and the project needed him to elevate it by revisiting those dark places. I wish I could separate the final product from the production history but I can’t, so I won’t pretend to. I can be objective enough to say that The Way Back is merely a good film. I wouldn’t even bat an eye if Affleck didn’t receive a nomination. It’s a straightforward movie to a fault. All that baggage though? The context in which the film is presented to us? I couldn’t help but sit in the theater and root for both Ben and Jack. The Way Back is a lifelong road and my hope is that they never stop moving forward.

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

REVIEW: Emma

Focus Features
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 124 minutes
Director: Autumn de Wilde

One of the biggest sources of contention between me and my darling mother is which version of Pride and Prejudice is superior: the Colin Firth version or the Keira Knightly version. I am more partial to the 2005 version due to its cinematography, music, and more modern approach to the dialogue. My mom prefers the more drawn-out version where the dialogue is super book-accurate. It is an argument that has never (and most likely will never) be resolved. Up until a few days ago, Pride and Prejudice and its varying version, was my only exposure to anything Jane Austen.

I knew from the moment of the trailer that this would be a movie that my mom and I would bond over when she eventually saw it, and I leapt at the chance to see an early screening of it at the Broadway Center Cinemas. I’m happy to say that this Jane Austen adaptation combines the best aspects of both Pride and Prejudice adaptations into a film that movie goers from any generation would appreciate and enjoy.

My Quibbles…

Random butt: Near the very beginning of the film, one of the male characters (I honestly don’t remember who) is changed by his servants and we are exposed to his full backside. There is no other overt sexual humor or nudity for the rest of the film, so the unexposed view of this character’s posterior felt really out of place.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn in a scene of Emma |Focus Features

What I Liked…

Anya Taylor-Joy: Ever since The VVitch, Split, and Glass I have been carefully watching Anya’s career with great interest. After seeing her in all serious roles, I am ashamed to admit that I was doubtful that she could pull off a comedic role, especially in a period piece. Well, I am glad to say that DING DONG I WAS WRONG. Anya embodies a Jane Austen character; she can go from snarky and quick-witted, to incredibly humbled and repentant in an instant and make it believable. It was refreshing to see her have so much fun and delight in such a different role than what she normally does. Her chemistry with all the actors was super genuine, and I really hope she gains more popularity.

Bill Niighy: I am entirely convinced that Bill Nighy can do no wrong. His character as the Woodhouse patriarch was absolutely HYSTERICAL. Every scene he was in had me laughing; it was his subtle mannerisms and biting commentary that did me in every time. The relationship between him and Emma is beautiful and sweet, and he stole the show every time he was on screen.

The score: My hat goes off to both the composer and the sound editor for this film. They managed to pull off a score that is beautiful, period appropriate, and acts as an amplifier for the humor. There is a term called “Mickey Mousing” or “paralleled scoring” where the music is synced with the action on screen, mostly for comedic timing. (60 Second Guide to Film Music [3] – Mickey Mousing) Emma uses this technique in such a brilliant subtle way that highlights the hilarity of the situations the characters find themselves in. It’s not overt, so it doesn’t seem too cartoony, but it is there, and I loved it.

Wes Anderson-like aesthetic: For most film fans, the name of Wes Anderson is synonymous with symmetry, quirkiness, and a pastel color pallet. Emma has all the makings of a Wes Anderson flick without being as precise and detail oriented, which isn’t a bad thing. Emma doesn’t need to be a Wes Anderson film, but the similarities make for an absolutely beautiful thing to look at. The color choice is simply gorgeous and fits right along with the period production design. The cinematography of Emma comes close to almost perfect Wes Anderson symmetry, allowing the film to have an elegant feel to it, without crossing the boundary to overly quirky. Overall, this is a stunning film to look at.

Mia Goth (left) and Anya Taylor-Joy (right) in a scene of Emma | Focus Features

Final Thoughts…

Emma is a quintessential Jane Austen movie that combines the aesthetic of a modern film with the dialogue from the time period. The film is witty, charming, hilarious, and well acted. Each of the four people I saw it with had the same reaction: “My mom is going to love this movie!” And do you know what? I loved it, too.

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

REVIEW: The Invisible Man

I’ve always felt that less is more when it comes to horror. It’s about what you don’t see or what’s implied that makes something scary.

REVIEW: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Pyramide Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 120 minutes
Director: Céline Sciamma

The first thing that piqued my interest about this movie was the title. And then I learned that it was a French film. But not just any French film, it was an LGBT+ romance. By the time I saw the trailer, I knew that this film needed to be firmly on my radar. Unfortunately, since Cache Valley is relatively small compared to the rest of Utah, the chances of seeing any independent film that wasn’t nominated  for Best Picture at the Oscars at our local theater is pretty slim. Thankfully, Broadway Center Theaters (operated by the Salt Lake Film Society) answered my cinephile prayers by showing all the lesser- known indie movies that I could want. I want to give them a huge shoutout for being awesome, and accommodating film buffs like me!

I was not prepared for this two-hour work of art I was about to experience. This movie was so impeccably crafted that when the credits began rolling, you could see my tear-stained face in the reflection of the screen. Normally when I review a movie, I like to get all the things I didn’t like (my quibbles, as I like to call them) out of the way before moving on to the things I thought were well done. Well, (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) I have nothing to report that I didn’t like! This movie was THAT good. So, this entire review is just going to be me gushing about how good this movie was.

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in a scene of Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Pyramide Films

The Acting

Noémie Merlant (who plays Marianne) and Adèle Haenel (who plays Héloïse) are absolutely phenomenal as the two leads. All the acting is spectacular, and the two leads really bring their A-game to this movie. One thing I really appreciate about international and independent cinema is the different approaches they have to the way acting and emotion could be conveyed on screen. This film had the potential to be overly-melodramatic, but it is more meditative and thoughtful. Every facial expression has meaning and adds depth to the characters. I became so focused on what their expressions were saying that the first time that Héloïse smiles, I wanted to cheer! Every desire, every confession of love, every heartbreak is written all over their faces without having to ham-fist it down your popcorn-stuffed throat. And the acting is only enhanced by the cinematography…

Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel, in Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Pyramide Films

The Cinematography

There are certain movies where the cinematography is the main standout of the film. Movies like 1917 or  Birdman, (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)  where the one-shot technique is the device, or like The Lighthouse, where it was filmed entirely in black and white and on a 1.19:1 aspect ratio. Portrait of a Lady on Fire does not boast of any major achievements or innovations in cinematography. Nevertheless, it is one of the most well-shot movies I have ever seen. Every camera angle and movement is geared toward highlighting the emotion and thoughts of the characters—I hate to use the cliché “every frame a painting,” but that’s what this movie felt like.

The Score (or lack of)

You would think that such a beautiful, intimate movie would have a haunting, sweeping romantic score to go along with it…. Right? I was so engrossed with the movie that it was near the halfway mark when I was shocked to realize that there was no score. Nothing. In fact, there are only two diegetic pieces in the entire film. One is a piece called “Portrait de la jeune fille en feu” (written for this film) and the other is “Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 8, RV 315, ‘Summer’” by Vivaldi from The Four Seasons. Both come at highly emotional significant points in the film, and the lack of any other music (diegetic or non-diegetic) frees and allows the viewer to take in every sound, every gasp, every whisper. By NOT having an intimate score, it allows the movie to feel even more intimate.

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in a scene of Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Pyramide Films

The Subtlety and Subtext

Like I said in my commentary about the acting, the film could have really hammed up the melodrama and not be subtle about its messages at all. Thankfully, the dialogue and themes of the film are just as well crafted as the rest of the movie. In an interview with The Guardian, Céline Sciamma (the director of this film) said that that the French found this film not to be erotic because “it lacks flesh.” And really, they are right. Unlike another French lesbian romance film, Blue is the Warmest Color, Portrait of a Lady on Fire contains very few scenes of nudity, and no sex scenes at all. The story is not about the two leads’ sexual relationship, but the very real love and affection they have for each other. I found that to be quite refreshing. 

The motive of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the various interpretations of that myth that the characters present, is also quite fascinating. The idea that Opheus “chose the path of the poet rather than the lover” by turning back to look at Eurydice was a fascinating observation and gave the outcome of the plot of the movie weight and clarity.

One other thing I really enjoyed is actually getting to see Marianne paint. There was no montage where the finished product sprung into view. We spent time watching her sketch, telling Héloïse how to pose and position herself, mix the paint to create differing colors, and so much more. It allowed time for us (and the characters) to really know Marianne and Héloïse, and understand their feelings and motivations.

Final Thoughts

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is nothing short of a masterpiece. It was crafted as a living portrait of these two women as they fall in love with the complexities and expectations of the society surrounding them and governing their choices. The acting, cinematography, minimal use of music, and the screenwriting were all masterful. It was announced in December that this film was joining the prestigious Criterion Collection and, in my opinion, it is more than worthy of that honor. If you have the privilege of having this film playing in a theater near you, make this movie one of your top priorities.

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

REVIEW: Sonic the Hedgehog

Paramount Pictures
Rated: PG
Run Time: 99 minutes
Director: Jeff Fowler

The much maligned “video game” genre of movies just received a much needed breath of fresh air. Sonic the Hedgehog is the 37th (live-action) film based off of a video game or video game character. A genre that started back in May of 1993 with the release of Super Mario Bros., but is still struggling to find its legs and connect with general audiences domestically and globally. There were a few that did…well enough…at the box office to merit a thumbs up, at least when comparing their production budget to the total box office outcome.

Warcraft (2016): The top dog of “video game movies.” Warcraft made more money than any other video game movie before it and since. It had an estimated production budget of $160 million, and was able to pull in almost $439 million world wide. However, over $391 million of that was outside of the U.S.

Rampage (2018): A close second behind Warcraft in its box office totals, pulling in approximately $428 million. On a production budget of around $130 million the studio was able to turn a profit; notwithstanding, it did have the help of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Dwayne Johson.

Pokémon, Detective Pikachu (2019): Until this movie, no other video game movie ever achieved the coveted “FRESH” score from Rotten Tomatoes, coming in at 69% (meaning, 69% of the 294 critics who reviewed the movie liked it). On a production budget of $150 million, and a box office haul of approximately $433 million, Detective Pikachu is widely considered the most successful video game movie ever made. Was it a turning point for this struggling genre? Or was the global appeal of Pokémon and that cute and cuddly Pikachu the reason for the movie’s success?

Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) in a scene from Sonic the Hedgehog. | Paramount Pictures

Enter Sonic the Hedgehog. One of the most iconic video game characters ever created. What Super Mario is to Nintendo, Sonic is to SEGA. If you were to make a list of the top 5 most iconic or well-known video game characters, Sonic would be on almost every list. (My list: Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Super Mario, Sonic, and Master Chief). But time and time again the video game genre have proven that popularity and iconic appeal do not automatically equate to financial and critical success.

I’m very happy to report that Sonic the Hedgehog has not followed the footsteps of its video game movie siblings. In spite of its shaky marketing start (see: Sonic design change), Sonic has sped his way into the hearts of audiences across the country. In its opening weekend, Sonic the Hedgehog has made more domestically ($58 million) than Warcraft made in its entire domestic run ($47.3 million)—and for good reason. Sonic the Hedgehog knows what it is and does not try to be anything else. The movie has timely self-deprecating moments that allow the audience to suspend belief and just enjoy the story being told. Most of the screen time is given to the little blue speedster and James Marsden’s character, Tom Wachowski. So the success of the movie is heavily dependent on the interactions of these two characters and how that translates on screen. Marsden does very well interacting with a 100% CGI created Sonic, and a genuine bond between the two characters is felt throughout.

Jim Carrey plays the villain, Dr. Ivo Robotnik. | Paramount Pictures

The most surprising performance of the film is given by Jim Carrey. I’ll admit I was very surprised to see Carrey take on a role that seemed more suited to the 1990’s Jim Carrey. As the villain, Dr. Ivo Robotnik, Carrey actually seems to care about his performance in this role. His lines are well delivered. His presence on screen is felt but without overshadowing the main characters, and if I’m being totally honest, I think Carrey’s talents were well utilized in this movie.

If you grew up playing the Sonic video games, or you have a family that wants to enjoy a family-friendly movie, Sonic the Hedgehog is the movie to see. I was overall pleased with the outcome, and feel that this (even more so than Detective Pikachu) is a great step in the right direction for video game movies.

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

Scroll to top