Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the horror comedy film “Renfield” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians, African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.
Culture Clash: A real-estate attorney, who has been forced to become an indentured servant procuring victims for vampire Count Dracula, finds himself involved in various hijinks with Dracula and a drug-smuggling gang.
Culture Audience: “Renfield” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Nicolas Cage and over-the-top comedies about vampires.
Nicolas Cage’s campy performance as Dracula is the best thing about “Renfield,” a horror comedy that sometimes gets a little too one-note and manic for its own good. The movie doesn’t take itself seriously, and neither should viewers. It’s not a movie for anyone who’s overly sensitive to graphic violence on screen, because there’s plenty of blood and gore, in case anyone forgot that “Renfield” is a vampire movie.
Directed by Chris McKay and written by Ryan Ridley, “Renfield” has a very simple concept that frequently gets muddled with the movie’s overreach in trying to do too much action and comedy at once. “Renfield” is supposed to be a satire of support-group culture and how therapy of co-dependence could be applied to someone who is a “familiar” (a servant of a vampire) trying to get out of a toxic relationship with a blood-sucking employer. However, there are subplots that get tangled in the mix that could have been presented in a more straightforward way.
In “Renfield,” Robert Montague Renfield (played by Nicholas Hoult) is a native of Great Britain who is living in the United States and working as a real-estate attorney. That’s how he met Dracula (played by Cage), who forced Renfield (a bachelor with no children) to become Dracula’s familiar. Renfield is tasked with finding murder victims for Dracula and cleaning up Dracula’s messes.
Dracula and Renfield move from city to city to avoid getting caught. In the beginning of “Renfield” (which has frequent narration by Renfield), Dracula and Renfield have settled in New Orleans. Most of “Renfield” is about a madcap feud involving Dracula, Renfield, mobster criminals and police. A drug-smuggling cartel, led by Bellafrancesca Lobo (played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, doing her best Mafia queen impersonation) ends up blaming Renfield for a stolen supply of drugs worth millions.
Meanwhile, Renfield attends a support group for people who are in unhealthy co-dependent relationships. The scenes with the support group meetings are hit and miss. A running gag that gets old quickly is that Renfield shows up and interrupts the meetings at very inconvenient times, usually when someone is in the middle of sharing their emotional pain with the group.
Also hit and miss is the subplot about budding romance between Renfield and a wisecracking New Orleans police officer named Rebecca Quincy (played by Awkwafina), who is trying to prove herself as worthy of her police badge, because her deceased father was a New Orleans police captain who was a well-respected local legend. Rebecca’s serious-minded sister Kate (played by Camille Chen) is an agent for the FBI. Rebecca and Kate have a sibling rivalry that is clumsily shoehorned into the story and is ultimately not essential to the overall plot.
Rebecca and Kate are the only ones who are living in a parent’s shadow. Bellafrancesca has made her bungling son Tedward “Teddy” Lobo (played by Ben Schwartz) her second-in-command. And he’s desperate to impress his mother, but he often fails miserably, because he’s such a buffoon. You can easily predict who will be in the movie’s biggest showdown toward the end.
Character development is not the strong point of “Renfield.” The main characters don’t have much depth, while the supporting characters aren’t too interesting and just exist in the movie to react to the antics or give a few unremarkable quips. Rebecca’s police supervisor Chris Marcos (played by Adrian Martinez) could have been a hilarious character, but he doesn’t get enough screen time to have an impact. The leader of the support group is a sensitive counselor named Mark (played by Brandon Scott Jones), who is written and portrayed as a character to be ridiculed for being a counselor who is immersed in political correctness.
There aren’t very many surprises in “Renfield,” but the movie can deliver some laughs for people who might like this type of entertainment. Hoult plays the “straight man” to Cage’s wacky Dracula. The movie has some dull reptition, but the overall pace of the movie is energetic. Renfield is a mixture of neurotic and empathetic, and Hoult is perfectly fine in this role, but the filmmakers made the mistake of naming the movie after this character. The real star of the show is unquestionably Dracula.
Universal Pictures will release “Renfield” in U.S. cinemas on April 14, 2023.
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles and Mallorca, Spain, the action comedy “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” features a cast of white and Latino characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: Desperate for money, famous actor Nick Cage agrees to a $1 million fee to appear at a wealthy superfan’s birthday party in Mallorca, where he reluctantly gets in the middle of an international espionage case.
Culture Audience: “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” will appeal primarily to fans of star Nicolas Cage and comedies that are satires of real people.
It’s not the comedy masterpiece that some people have been hyping it up to be, but “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” has plenty of hilarious moments in spoofing Nicolas Cage’s public persona and action films. The movie has some genuinely inspired scenes before the film’s last 20 minutes devolve into stereotypical formulas seen in many other comedic spy capers. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is also an above-average buddy comedy, with touches of family sentimentality to balance out some of the wackiness.
Tom Gormican directed “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Kevin Etten. It’s Gormican’s second feature film, after he made his feature-film directorial debut with the forgettable 2014 male-friendship comedy “That Awkward Moment.” Gormican’s background is mainly as a TV writer/producer, with credits that include “Scrubs,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Ed.” At times, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” veers into stale TV sitcom territory, but the movie has enough originality and charm to rise above its repetitive clichés. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” has its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
Cage has said in interviews that he initially rejected the idea of doing this movie. It’s a good thing that he changed his mind, because “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is easily one of the funniest comedy films that Cage has done in decades. In the movie, he plays two versions of himself: (1) main character Nick Cage, a present-day version of himself, and (2) Nicky Cage, a younger, brasher version of Cage, circa the late 1980s/early 1990s. (According to the movie’s production notes, Nicky’s physical appearance was inspired by how the real Cage looked in his 1990 movie “Wild at Heart.”)
Nicky has de-aging visual effects for his face, and he appears to Nick as a figment of Nick’s imagination, in moments when Nick is feeling insecure. Nicky’s blunt and sometimes crude conversations with Nick (which are either pep talks, insults or both) are among the more memorable parts of the movie. Nicky has a habit of yelling out “I’m Nick fucking Cage!,” in an elongated way, as if he’s a WWE announcer yelling, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” before a wrestling match. In the film’s end credits, the actor listed as portraying Nicky is Nicolas Kim Coppola, which is a cheeky nod to Cage’s birth surname Coppola. (Numerous movie fans already know that Cage is part of the famous Coppola movie family.)
In the beginning of “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” Nick is a world-famous actor in Los Angeles, but he’s currently not getting the acting roles that he wants. Nick has been struggling with being labeled a “has-been” who’s been doing a lot of low-budget, low-quality movies in recent years. (Real-life filmmaker David Gordon Green has a cameo as himself in an early scene in the movie where Nick tries to impress him with an impromptu monologue reading.)
When Nicky shows up and talks to Nick, it’s usually to remind Nick that his younger self would never have stooped to the level of the type of work that Nick is doing now. In one of the movie’s early scenes, Nicky is lecturing Nick about it during a drive in Nick’s car, with Nick driving. A defensive Nick snaps back: “Hello! It’s my job! It’s how I pay my bills. I have to feed my family.” Nick ends the conversation by telling Nicky, “You’re annoying!” And then Nick kicks Nicky out of the car.
Nick’s fast-talking agent Richard Fink (played by Neil Patrick Harris, in a cameo role) tells Nick about a job offer from a Nick Cage superfan in Mallorca, Spain. This wealthy fan wants to pay Nick $1 million to make a personal appearance at the fan’s birthday party. Nick says no to the idea, because he thinks that these types of personal appearances are beneath him as a “serious actor.”
However, because Nick gets rejected for a movie role that he had been counting on getting, and because he has high-priced divorce payments and other bills, a financially desperate Nick agrees to the birthday party job offer. Nick makes it clear to Richard that this personal appearance better not include anything involving kinky sex. Nick has no idea that what he thinks will be an easy gig will turn out to be a life-threatening, mind-bending experience for him and other people.
Nick isn’t just having problems in his career. His personal life is also messy. Nick has a tension-filled relationship with his ex-wife Olivia (played by Sharon Horgan), a former makeup artist whom he met on the set of his 2001 movie “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” It’s revealed in “The Unbearable Wright of Massive Talent” that one of the main reasons why they divorced was because Olivia thought that Nick put his career above everything else in his life.
Nick and Olivia have a daughter named Addy (played by Lily Sheen), who’s about 15 or 16 years old. Addy is usually annoyed with Nick because she thinks he forces her to do things (such as watch movies) that are according to what he wants to do and his personal tastes, without taking into consideration Addy’s own personal wants and needs. For example, Nick has insisted that Addy watch the 1920 horror film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” even though Addy has no interest in seeing this movie.
Addy also thinks Nick has been a neglectful father for most of her life. That’s why Nick and Addy are in therapy together. But as an example of Nick’s self-centered ways, a therapy session that’s shown in the movie reveals that Nick spends most of the time talking about himself, while Addy sulks in a corner on a couch. Their therapist named Cheryl (played by Joanna Bobin) has to listen to Nick ramble on about his career problems, while she tries to steer the conversation back to how to improve his personal relationships.
Nick is so financially broke, he doesn’t have a permanent home, and he’s living at a hotel. When he gets locked out of his hotel room due to non-payment, he calls his agent Richard to tell him that he’s taking the birthday party job. A self-pitying Nick also tells Richard that he’s going to quit being an actor. On his way to Mallorca, Nick has no idea that he’s gotten on the radar of the CIA, which has been tracking the activities of the fan who has hired Nick to be at the fan’s birthday party. The CIA has this superfan under investigation for being the leader of a ruthless international arms cartel.
Two CIA operatives who have been assigned to the case are named Vivian (played by Tiffany Haddish) and Martin (played by Ike Barinholtz), who are surprised and confused when they see Nick disembarking from the private plane that the superfan has chartered for this trip. Vivian, who has a take-charge and quick-thinking personality, immediately pretends to be an adoring Nick Cage fan, and stops him at the airport to take a selfie photo with him. It’s really a ruse to plant a tracking device on Nick. Vivian and Martin are generic and underwritten roles, so Haddish and Barinholtz don’t do much that’s noteworthy in the movie.
In Mallorca, Nick is taken to a lavish cliffside mansion, where he is greeted by several employees of this rich superfan, who is described as a mogul in the olive grove business. The fan’s name is Javi Gutierrez (played by Pasco Pascal), and he is so unassuming on first impression, Nick initially mistakes Javi for one of the servants, because Javi was the one who drove Nick to this mansion by speedboat. The two people in Javi’s inner circle who are the closest to him are his cousin/right-hand man Lucas Gutierrez (played by Paco León) and a savvy business person named Gabriela (played by Alessandra Mastronardi), nicknamed Gabi, who is Javi’s director of operations.
Nick soon finds out that Javi didn’t just invite him to make an appearance at Javi’s birthday party. Javi has written a movie screenplay, and he wants Nick to star in this movie. Javi is crushed when Nick tells him that he’s going to quit acting, so Javi desperately tries to get Nick to change his mind One of the running gags in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is how Nick reacts to Javi’s attempts to befriend Nick and get Nick to read his script. It should come as no surprise that Javi makes revisions to the screenplay, based on a lot of the shenanigans that he experiences with Nick.
As shown in the movie’s trailer, Vivian and Martin recruit/pressure Nick to spy on Javi for the CIA. Meanwhile, things get more complicated with the kidnapping of Maria Delgado (played by Katrin Vankova), a teenage daughter of a politician who’s running for a high office in Spain. There are entanglements with a thug named Carlos (played by Jacob Scipio) and a group called the Carabello crime family. And it should come as no surprise that Addy and Olivia somehow get mixed up in this mess too.
Along the way, there’s some drug-fueled comedy that’s intended to make the most of Cage’s slapstick skills. First, Nick accidentally drugs himself with a potentially lethal dose of gaseous poison. Later, Nick and Javi take LSD together and have a bonding experience where they go through various levels of elation and paranoia.
Nick and Javi’s budding friendship is at the heart of the movie. However, there are also some standout moments involving Nicky, Olivia and Addy and how their relationships to Nick end up evolving. (Nicky spontaneously does something outrageous, when he kisses Nick, in a scene that will have viewers either shocked, roaring with laughter or both.)
Pascal is pitch-perfect in his role as Javi, who might or might not be the movie’s biggest villain. When secrets are revealed, they’re not too surprising, but one of the best things about “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is that it doesn’t make Javi into a meaningless caricature. Even though Cage is the larger-than-life central character in the movie, Pascal holds his own and can be considered a scene-stealer.
“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” has the expected stream of jokes about previous real-life movies of Cage. Among those that get name-checked or parodied include “Con Air,” “Face/Off,” “Moonstruck,” “Valley Girl,” “The Croods: A New Age,” “Gone in 60 Seconds,” “The Rock,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” “National Treasure” and “Guarding Tess.” Also in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is a recurring joke about the animated film “Paddington 2” (which is not one of Cage’s movies) and how this family film sequel about a talking bear affects certain people who watch it.
Cage is a versatile actor who tackles his role in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” with gusto. (He’s also one of the movie’s producers.) Cage makes this movie work so well because he’s fully on board with laughing at himself. Not too many well-known actors would risk doing a movie where they have to poke fun at their triumphs and failures, but it’s precisely this risk-taking that has made Cage one of the most interesting and unpredictable actors of his generation. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” does indeed have massive talent, but this talent helps the movie soar instead of sink.
Lionsgate will release “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” in U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on June 7, 2022, and on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray on June 21, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, in the fictional city called Samurai Town and in a fictional area called Ghostland, the action film “Prisoners of the Ghostland” features a cast of predominantly white and Asian characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A mysterious man is forced to find a ruthless leader’s enslaved concubine, who has escaped.
Culture Audience: “Prisoners of the Ghostland” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Nicolas Cage and anyone who likes action movies that have more style than substance.
“Prisoners of the Ghostland” has impressive production design and cinematography, but this visually stylish action flick is too much of an incoherent mess in all other areas to be a truly enjoyable experience. Nicolas Cage’s die-hard fans, who automatically praise everything he does, will probably like “Prisoners of the Ghostland” just because he’s in the movie, in spite of the film’s very obvious failings. Unfortunately, the “Prisoners of the Ghostland” story just too cliché, but the filmmakers try to distract from this unoriginality by cluttering up the movie with predictable fight scenes and some bizarre characters.
Directed by Sion Sono, “Prisoners of the Ghostland”(which takes place in fictional areas of Japan) is essentially a post-apocalyptic film that blends elements of Western movies and samurai movies. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai) has the over-used “male hero who has to save a woman” concept as the basis for the protagonist’s main mission in this story. Maybe it’s a joke or maybe the filmmakers were just too lazy to come up with a name for the protagonist (played by Cage), but he doesn’t have a name in the movie. He’s listed in the film credits as Hero.
The Hero character is not exactly an upstanding, morally righteous person. He’s in prison for a bank robbery where he and his partner in crime, named Psycho (played by Nick Cassavetes), murdered several innocent bystanders. (This bank robbery is shown in a very bloody flashback.)
Psycho was in a prison transport vehicle that crashed into a truck carrying nuclear waste, which caused a massive explosion, leading to much of the area becoming a wasteland disaster area. (“Prisoners of the Ghostland” was filmed in Japan and Los Angeles. The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)
A corrupt and twisted leader named the Governor (played by Bill Moseley) has created a settlement community called Samurai Town, which is a combination of a modern Japanese city and American Old West village. As such, people in Samurai Town either dress in traditional Japanese clothing or cowboy/cowgirl gear. The Governor keeps women as sex slaves, whom he calls his “granddaughters.”
One of the enslaved women has escaped. Her name is Bernice (played by Sofia Boutella), and the Governor lets Hero out of prison to force Hero to find Bernice and bring her back to the Governor. As part of this mercenary task, the Governor forces Hero to wear a black leather outfit that is rigged with a detonator. The bomb on the suit will go off if Hero does not return Bernice in two days.
There are voice recognition buttons on the outfit’s sleeves, so that Bernice can speak into these devices to confirm that she is with Hero. Electro-chargers have been placed around Hero’s neck and testicles that will detonate if he tries to take off this outfit before the task is completed. Instead of taking the black Toyota Celica that has been offered to him, Hero instead decides to leave on a bicycle.
The Governor has a samurai bodyguard/enforcer named Yasujiro (played by Tak Sakaguchi), who catches up to Hero and tells him to use the car, and Hero obliges. However, Hero ends up crashing the car and is carried into a bombed-out area called Ghostland, which can be best be described as a rebellious steampunk community. The leader of the Ghostland tribe is the demented Enoch (played by Charles Glover), who knows that Bernice is there, but he’s doesn’t want to let her go.
You know where this story is headed, of course. The rest of “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is just a series of one obstacle after another for Hero, who gets into a lot of fights along the way. And did we mention that there are also some zombies in this post-apocalyptic world? (How unoriginal and unnecessary.)
Unfortunately, none of the uneven acting in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” elevates this shoddily told story. The dialogue in this movie is simply atrocious. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” tries every hard to be perceived as a zany action movie, but there’s no wit, charm or unpredictability to this story. For an action flick, it’s got dreadfully sluggish pacing in too many areas.
“Prisoners of the Ghostland” also has a lot of characters that are either too bland or so wacky that they’re trying too hard and are therefore annoying. Cage is just doing another version of the angsty loner type that he has already done in many of his other films. The villains are hollow. And most of the supporting characters—including Bernice’s friends Stella (played by Lorena Kotô), Nancy (played by Canon Nawata) and Susie (played by Yuzuka Nakaya)—are underwritten and underdeveloped.
It seems like “Prisoners of the Ghostland” was made with the idea that it will be a cult classic that will inspire other movies, similar to what director George Miller’s 1979 post-apocalyptic action classic “Mad Max” ended up doing for sci-fi action cinema in a “wasteland” setting. However, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” doesn’t have enough meaningful characters to care about to see again in spinoffs or sequels. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is just an empty exercise from filmmakers who think that all you need to make a good action movie are memorable set designs, a well-known actor as a headliner, and a variety of fight scenes. That’s not enough to save “Prisoners of the Ghostland” from being a disappointing mishmash of superficial self-indulgence and amateurish storytelling.
RLJE Films released “Prisoners of the Ghostland” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 17, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 16, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Portland, Oregon, the dramatic film “Pig” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A reclusive truffle hunter goes on a mission to find his beloved pig that was stolen from him.
Culture Audience: “Pig” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Nicolas Cage and well-made independent films.
Dark, brooding yet surprisingly sentimental, “Pig” takes a simple concept of a truffle hunter looking for his stolen pig and turns this offbeat mystery into an emotionally moving story. The film’s main appeal is a standout performance by Nicolas Cage, who can count “Pig” as one of his best movies in a career where has done a diverse array of projects of varying qualities. What “Pig” does so well is buck conventions of the characters and scenarios that are usually in this type of drama. This story is as much about a man looking for his closest companion as it is about the same man confronting himself and his past.
“Pig” is the very impressive feature-film directorial debut of Michael Sarnowski, who wrote the “Pig” screenplay from a story conceived by Sarnowski and Vanessa Block. The movie (which takes place in Portland, Oregon) opens with a reclusive truffle hunter named Rob (played by Cage) making a sale to his biggest client: a man in his 20s named Amir (played by Alex Wolff), who visits Rob every Thursday to do business.
Rob, who is a lonely widower, has a sow who is his only truffle-hunting animal and therefore Rob’s lifeline to Rob’s income. This female pig is also Rob’s closest companion, whom he treats like a child. Amir comments to Rob about the pig’s truffle-finding abilities: “I don’t know how this little fucker does it.”
Amir has an air of cockiness and condescension when dealing with Rob, who has a scruffy and unkempt appearance. When Amir asks Rob if Rob ever wants a portable shower, Rob says nothing in return. Amir then says, “Good talk. See you next Thursday, asshole.”
Rob is content to live a quiet and simple life on his own. However, there are signs that he’s in deep emotional pain over the death of his wife Lori (played by Cassandra Violet in flashbacks), because he often listens mournfully to audio recordings that Lori made. It’s never really mentioned in the movie how long Lori has been deceased, but Rob’s past life is slowly revealed throughout the story.
Rob is about to go through some more emotional turmoil. One night, a break-in occurs at his home, and his pig is stolen. Rob gets assaulted during this home invasion theft. He gets in his truck to chase after the thieves, but his truck is such a clunker, it stops soon after it starts.
Rob then walks to the nearest diner to use the phone (because apparently, Rob doesn’t have a phone), so that he can call Amir and ask for his help to find his pig. When Rob tells Amir what happened, Amir is dismissive: “Listen, man. It’s not my problem.” Rob snarls, “You want your supply? I need my pig.” Rob also refuses Amir’s suggestion to get another pig.
Because Rob needs transportation to get around, Amir is the one who does the driving. Rob then goes on a quest to find the pig. It takes him down some unexpected paths that includes visiting places as disparate as an underground fight club and the mansion of Amir’s wealthy father Darius (played by Adam Arkin) and a lot of places in between.
It soon becomes obvious that the theft of Rob’s pig isn’t just about how the pig will affect his income. Rob has an emotional attachment to the pig that represents trying to heal from his grief. The pig also represents the uncomplicated dignity Rob wants to have when people he knows often look down at him or ridicule him for his simple farmer’s life. Amir starts off as shallow and self-centered, but he goes through a change of perspective when he becomes involved in Rob’s world and sees different sides to Rob.
There’s more to the story than the mystery of who stole the pig and if Rob can find this cherished animal. Viewers will also learn more about what’s behind the enigma of Rob and who he really is as a person. It’s a fascinating psychological portrait that benefits from Sarnowski’s skillful direction and writing, which keep viewers interested and invested in finding out how everything is going to end in the movie.
Cage has been doing a lot of other low-budget, independent films that aren’t really worthy of his talent. His performance in “Pig” is a very memorable portrayal of a man who’s angry at the world but also at war with himself. “Pig” is the type of artfully made film that Cage needs to be doing more often instead of the mindless schlock that has made him a punchline for too many jokes.
Neon released “Pig” in U.S. cinemas on July 15, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD was on August 3, 2021. “Pig” is also available for streaming on Hulu.
Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional town of Hayesville, Nevada, the horror film “Willy’s Wonderland” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: After his car breaks down in a remote area, an unnamed loner agrees to pay for the repairs by cleaning an abandoned funhouse that has some sinister secrets and a group of animatronic mascots that kill.
Culture Audience: “Willy’s Wonderland” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Nicolas Cage and people who don’t mind slasher flicks with hollow characters and a concept that quickly wears thin.
“Willy’s Wonderland” wastes its unique production design and potentially clever premise by just becoming another repetitive slasher flick. Nicolas Cage’s one-dimensional performance becomes a complete bore. The rampaging animatronic mascots in the film have more memorable personalities than the human characters.
Yes, “Willy’s Wonderland” is about a funhouse with animatronic figures that kill. The movie could have been a wildly funny and entertaining horror story, but it’s unable to sustain much of its appeal and tension during the last two-thirds of the film. It just becomes a tiresome checklist of people who get killed in uninspired and gory ways. It’s also very easy to predict who will be the last ones standing as the survivors at the end of the movie.
Directed by Kevin Lewis and written by G.O. Parsons (in his feature-film debut as a screenwriter), “Willy’s Wonderland” certainly can be commended for its entrancing and eye-catching production design of the Willy’s Wonderland funhouse that’s at the center of the story’s mayhem. (The “Willy’s Wonderland” funhouse scenes were actually filmed at PopCom in Atlanta.) Unfortunately, it looks like the filmmakers of “Willy’s Wonderland” put more thought into how the movie looks than into developing an engaging story that delivers surprises or meaningful characters.
Cage is the unnamed protagonist of “Willy’s Wonderland” who becomes the unwitting main target in this deadly funhouse. In the beginning of the movie, his car breaks down after getting a flat tire in the small, remote town of Hayesville, Nevada. Hayesville is so behind-the-times, it doesn’t have Internet service.
Meanwhile, this unlucky stranger gets a ride from truck driver passing by named Jed Love (played by Chris Warner), who takes him to the nearest mechanic, who will only accept cash as payment. But this stranger is out of luck because the only ATM machine in town doesn’t work. What’s a cash-strapped owner of a broken car to do when the closest mechanic will only take cash?
If he’s in a mindless horror movie like “Willy’s Wonderland,” he doesn’t consider other options, like calling to find a car repair service that will take other payments besides cash. No, he takes a “too good to be true” offer from a guy named Tex Macadoo (played by Ric Reitz), who steps in at just the right moment. Tex tells this stranger that he will pay to have this stranger’s car fixed. All the stranger has to do is spend a night cleaning Willy’s Wonderland, an abandoned family fun center that Tex owns and says he has plans to re-open.
Tex says that these janitor duties can only take place at night, and whoever cleans the place has to spend the entire night there. These requirements immediately sound suspicious, but some people will do anything to get their broken car fixed for free. Of course, there’s more to the Willy’s Wonderland story than Tex is willing to tell this stranger, who will be called the Janitor in this review, since that’s the name that’s listed for him in the film’s credits.
Meanwhile, there’s someone in town who hates Willy’s Wonderland and everything it stands for so much, she tries to burn the whole place down. Her name is Liv Hawthorne (played by Emily Tosta), an orphaned teenager who is quickly arrested for this attempted arson of Willy’s Wonderland. And it just so happens that Liv’s adoptive mother is the town’s chief law enforcement officer: Sheriff Eloise Lund (played by Beth Grant), who handcuffs Liv to a trailer.
Liv screams at Sheriff Lund: “You’re a bitch!” Sheriff Lund replies sarcastically, “I love you too,” as she leaves to go back to work. Liv doesn’t stay handcuffed for long, because her friends come by to rescue her: Chris (played by Kai Kadlec) is Liv’s airhead love interest. The other members of Liv’s teenage clique are Caylee Cowan (played by Kathy Banes), Bob McDaniel (played by Terayle Hill), Aaron Powers (played by Christian Del Grosso), Dan Lorraine (played by Jonathan Mercedes), Jerry Robert Willis (played by Grant Cramer), who are all just there because every slasher movie needs a body count.
And what a coincidence: Liv and her pals head over to Willy’s Wonderland on the same night that the Janitor is working there. The Janitor soon finds out that he’s not safe in Willy’s Wonderland after all. There are are eight talking animatronic mascots, and they are all just waiting to kill people: ringleader Willy the Weasel (voiced by Jiri Stanek), Siren Sara (played by Jessica Graves Davis), Cammy the Chameleon (voiced by Taylor Towery), Tito the Turtle (voiced by Chris Schmidt Jr.), Arty the Alligator (voiced by Christopher Bradley), Knighty Knight (voiced by Duke Jackson), Gus the Gorilla (voiced by Billy Bussey) and Ozzie the Ostrich (voiced by BJ Guyer).
By the time Liv and her friends arrive at Willy’s Wonderland to commit some vandalism, the Janitor has managed to fend off attacks from Ozzie and Gus. The teenagers meet the Janitor, and Liv has news for him, in case it wasn’t obvious enough: “You’re here as a human sacrifice.” Liv also says that that Willy’s Wonderland being a murder trap is the town’s dirty little secret. It’s eventually revealed why Willy’s Wonderland ended up being a sanctuary of evil. The rest of the movie is just a series of violent fights with the humans against the attacking animatronic mascots.
Cage’s role as the Janitor could have been more interesting, but the character doesn’t talk in the movie. He’s almost as robotic as the animatronic mascots. It’s never explained if he’s deliberately mute or has a genuine speech disability, but the movie gives the impression that it’s more likely that he’s made a choice not to talk because he doesn’t really like to be around people. One of the biggest disappointments in “Willy’s Wonderland” is that this protagonist has a severe lack of a personality.
Liv (generically played by Tosta) has a backstory that explains why she has a personal hatred of Willy’s Wonderland. It’s not a surprise, considering that she’s an orphan. Liv’s friends are underdeveloped characters who don’t leave much of an impression because their purpose in the movie is exactly what you think it is.
“Willy’s Wonderland” might be amusing to people who think it’s hilarious to see animatronic figures acting like murderers. The problem is that these killing scenes just become tedious after a while. The “jokes” in the movie are witless. And the suspense quickly disappears when it becomes obvious that “Willy’s Wonderland” is just following the same over-used formula that too many other substandard slasher movies have used before, with diminished returns and underwhelming results.
Screen Media Films released “Willy’s Wonderland” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on February 12, 2021. “Willy’s Wonderland” is also available for streaming on Hulu.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Burma, the sci-fi action film “Jiu Jitsu” features a cast of white and Asian characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, mercenaries and U.S. military officials.
Culture Clash: Several human beings battle a death warrior from outer space who comes to Earth every six years from a comet-created space portal.
Culture Audience: “Jiu Jitsu” will appeal primarily to people interested in sci-fi action movies that are inferior imitations of “The Predator” movie franchise.
“Jiu Jitsu” has nothing to do with the martial arts craft of jiu jitsu, just like this movie has nothing to do with high-quality entertainment. It’s just a messy parade of sci-fi action schlock with tacky visual effects. It also blatantly rips off elements of “The Predator” movie franchise.
Dimitri Logothetis, a filmmaker of hack action movies, directed the mind-numbing “Jiu Jitsu,” which really is nothing but corny fight scenes strung together with abysmal dialogue, all lumbering along until the very predictable ending. Logothetis co-wrote the horrific screenplay with James “Jim” McGrath. “Jiu Jitsu” could have easily been a short film, but it’s dragged out to tedious levels because of repetitive battle scenes.
The gist of the flimsy story is that a mysterious, muscle-bound American man named Jake (played by Alain Moussi) finds himself at the center of an intergalactic battle that has been taking place on Earth for centuries. Every six years, a comet opens up a portal on Earth. A death warrior named Brax emerges from the portal to fight a group of humans who call themselves Jiu Jitsus. Their Jiu Jitsu leader is “the chosen one” who must fight Brax, or else everyone and everything on Earth will be killed.
Jake is first seen in “Jiu Jitsu” running frantically in a forest in Burma, as if something is chasing him. (“Jiu Jitsu” was actually filmed in Cyprus.) Jake falls over a cliff and plunges into a large body of water. A middle-aged fisherman (played by Raymond Pinharry) and his wife (played by Mary Makariou), who don’t have names in the movie, rescue Jake and give some medical attention to his wounds.
It’s soon apparent that Jake has amnesia. The fisherman’s wife takes him to a nearby U.S. Army camp. The commanding officer in charge is a stern and impatient leader named Captain Hickman (played by played by John Hickman), who orders a buffoonish subordinate named Tex (played by Eddie Steeples) to act as a translator. Tex isn’t very fluent in Burmese, so he predictably botches some of the translating.
That’s when the fisherman’s wife tells them about the cosmic portal and the outer-space death warrior, whom she calls Dat Daw Taung. These Army guys think it’s just a bunch of rambling gibberish from a superstitious person. Of course, there would be no “Jiu Jitsu” movie if what she was saying didn’t turn out to be true.
Soon, Jake finds himself being interrogated by an Army intelligence officer named Mya (played by Marie Avgeropoulos), a no-nonsense type who doesn’t know what to believe when Rick says that he has no idea who he is and what he’s doing there, but later he has a vague recollection: “I’m here to do a job.” Mya thinks that Jake might be some type of spy. He’s held captive until the Army figures out what to do with him.
While Jake is in captivity, another captive breaks free from the prison compound. His name is Kueng (played by Tony Jaa), and he insists that Jake go with him. They run off into a field together. And lo and behold, emerging from the field, like beanstalks suddenly spurting upward from the grass, are three other “warriors”: tough-talking Harrigan (played by Frank Grillo), quiet Forbes (played by Marrese Crump) and courageous Carmen (played by JuJu Chan), who not surprisingly ends up in a thrown-together romance with Jake.
And so, off these five “warriors” go as they kick, punch and wield weapons (such as swords, guns and knives), with an Army leader named Captain Sand (played by Rick Yune) in hot pursuit. Captain Sand has some forgettable subordinates who help him in this mission. The five renegades inevitably encounter Brax (played by Ryan Tarran), who quickly heals from any wounds, thereby making him hard to kill.
Brax is dressed in scaly armor and has a full-sized helmet that shows light blue space where a face should be. Occasionally, outlines of eyes and other facial features show up in this blue space, using cheap-looking visual effects. Brax’s point of view is shown a few times as X-ray vision that looks like it’s bathed in a heat glow. It’s a direct ripoff of Predator’s vision from the “Predator” movies.
Nicolas Cage shows up 39 minutes into the 102-minute “Jiu Jitsu,” which is just another B-movie where he plays yet another unhinged, eccentric character. In “Jiu Jitsu,” Cage is a wilderness-dwelling loner named Wylie, who ends up joining Jake and his team. Wylie seems to know quite a bit about Brax and gives advice, much of it unsolicited and sometimes unheeded. In his spare time, Wylie likes to make triangular hats out of newspapers. These hats are not the cone-shaped head coverings that used to be called “dunce caps” in the old days, although “dunce caps” would not be out of place in this dimwitted movie.
Cage’s total screen time in “Jiu Jitsu” is only about 15 to 20 minutes, but he does have one battle scene with Drax that seems to be the main reason why Cage was hired for this movie. Cage gives a deliberately hammy performance that’s meant to show he knows he’s in a stinker of a movie. However, his comedic self-awareness just seems out of place in a movie where all the other cast members act like they’re in a serious action film. If Cage is openly smirking, it might be because “Jiu Jitsu” was an easy multimillion-dollar salary for him. The joke is on the “Jiu Jitsu” producers who forked over the money for a rehashed and unoriginal performance that Cage has done in dozens of his forgettable action flicks.
Sometimes, when an action movie doesn’t care about having a good story, intriguing characters or memorable dialogue, the movie makes up for this lack of appeal by having dazzling action scenes. That’s not the case with “Jiu Jitsu,” which is filled with nothing but unimaginative fight sequences. None of the movie’s characters has an interesting story, although “Jiu Jitsu” tries to throw in a “plot twist/reveal” about the background of one of the characters. This “plot twist/reveal,” which is toward the end of the movie, is not surprising at all. The only thing surprising about “Jiu Jitsu” is that filmmakers actually thought that this abominable garbage wouldn’t be such a flop.
The Avenue Entertainment released “Jiu Jitsu” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 20, 2020. Paramount Home Entertainment released the movie on DVD on December 22, 2020. “Jiu Jitsu” is also available on Netflix.
Culture Representation: The animated film sequel “The Croods: A New Age” features a cast of characters representing humans who live in a world somewhere between prehistoric and modern and where over-sized animals exist.
Culture Clash: The caveperson family from “The Croods” encounters a New Age family with modern amenities and a superior attitude to people who live in caves.
Culture Audience: “The Croods: A New Age” will appeal primarily to people looking for lightweight animated entertainment that people of many different ages and backgrounds can enjoy.
Although not as cohesively written as 2013’s animated cavedweller comedy “The Croods,” the 2020 sequel “The Croods: A New Age” checks all the right boxes for escapist entertainment but offers some sly social commentary on the hypocrisy of self-appointed “hipster lifestyle” gurus. “The Croods: A New Age” pokes fun at so-called “enlightened” people who think they’re open-minded, but are really very bigoted against other people who don’t have the same lifestyles as they do. It’s this culture conflict that takes up a good deal of the movie’s plot until the last third of the movie where it delivers a predictable, crowd-pleasing “race against time” rescue scenario.
Directed by Joel Crawford, “The Croods: A New Age” picks up not long after where “The Croods” ended. The cavedweller Crood family from the first “Croods” movie is still intact: Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage) is still an over-protective patriarch who thinks he always knows best. Grug’s wife Ugga (voiced by Catherine Keener) is still the sensible, more even-tempered spouse in the marriage. Ugga’s mother Gran (voiced by Cloris Leachman) is still a sassy, outspoken grandmother.
Grug and Ugga’s three children also have the same personalities: Eldest child Eep (voiced by Emma Stone) is an adventurous, independent-minded daughter in her late teens; middle child Thunk (voiced by Clark Duke) is likable but a somewhat dimwitted guy in his mid-teens; and youngest child Sandy (voiced by Kailey Crawford), who would be kindergarten-age if these kids went to school, isn’t old enough to have meaningful conversations, so she’s mainly in the movie to look adorable.
The Croods also have a relatively new member of their clan, or “pack,” as they like to call their familial group: Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), an orphaned human from the modern world who spent most of the first “Croods” movie being the target of disapproval by Grug, especially when Guy and Eep fell in love with each other. Guy has now been accepted into the Croods pack. Eep and Guy, who are about the same age as each other, are still blissfully in love.
Guy and Eep are thinking of taking their relationship to the next level (getting their own place together, getting married, and starting their own family), but Grug doesn’t want Guy and Eep to leave the pack to start their own lives. “Eep will never leave us!” Grug declares to Ugga early in the movie. Ugga is more realistic about Eep eventually moving out of the family domain, but she doesn’t press the issue either way.
Guy and the Croods are still on their journey to find a promised land called Tomorrow, which Guy says is a utopia that he knew about when he was a child and when his parents were still alive. The land of Tomorrow is a place where dreams can come true, food is plentiful, and people don’t have the daily struggles of trying to survive the harsh environment that’s a way of life for cavedwellers.
And lo and behold, they end up finding Tomorrow. It’s a world filled with colorful plants, butterflies and creature comforts such as indoor plumbing. (There’s a joke scene in the movie where the cavedwellers marvel at how a toilet works.) But is Tomorrow really the paradise that Guy described? They’re about to find out.
The first two people they meet upon arriving in tomorrow are a married couple named Phil Betterman (voiced by Peter Dinklage) and Hope Betterman (voiced by Leslie Mann), who look and dress like New Age hippies but have the thinly veiled, condescending attitude of uptight bigots. Hope is the more insulting one of the two spouses. Upon meeting the Croods, she says, “I thought cave people died off years ago!”
It turns out that Guy already knows Phil and Hope Betterman because the spouses were the best friends of Guy’s parents, who died in a tar catastrophe, and the Bettermans raised Guy until he was old enough to be on his own. When Guy lived with the Bettermans, he was a close friend to their only child, a daughter named Dawn (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), who is friendly and somewhat tomboyish. Needless to say, the entire Betterman family is ecstatic to see Guy again.
However, Phil and Hope are disappointed that Guy is in a relationship with Eep, partly because this snooty couple looks down on cavedwellers but mostly because they want Dawn and Guy to end up together. Phil and Hope concoct various matchmaker schemes to try to achieve that goal. Just like Grug was extremely paranoid and overprotective of Eep in “The Croods,” so too are Phil and Hope when it comes to Dawn. The Betterman spouses shield Dawn from the outside world because they don’t want her associating with people such as cavedwellers.
“The Croods: The New Age” could have gone down a very tiresome and predictable path with this love-triangle story, by pitting Dawn and Eep against each other in a catty rivalry. Instead, Dawn and Eep become immediate friends, but that has a lot to do with the fact that Dawn really isn’t interested in having a romance with Guy. Dawn’s parents keep pushing her in that direction though, because they think Guy is too good to be with a cavedweller such as Eep.
Publicly, Hope and Phil are polite to the Croods. Privately, Hope and Phil are appalled by the Croods’ primitive ways. The Croods are sloppy eaters, they have a tendency to burst through the walls instead of opening doors, and they’re sometimes loud and unruly. Hope says to Phil at one point in the story: “I don’t know if cave people belong in the modern world.”
Meanwhile, Phil finds out he and Grug have a common wish: They both don’t want Guy to end up marrying Eep. And so, Phil manipulates Grug into scheming with him to break up Eep and Guy. However, when Ugga finds out about this plan, she gets upset with Grug and makes him see that he’s just being used and that Phil and Hope must think that they’re stupid.
The movie tends to drag when it becomes about this social-class warfare between “modern” Phil and Hope and “primitive” Grug and Ugga. It’s an obvious metaphor for the political divides that can exist between liberal elites and those whom the elites think of as “less progressive” or “backwards.” Likewise, the movie continues the notion from the first “Croods” movie that people who are stuck in their ways can be a detriment to themselves and the people around them.
“The Croods: A New Age” doesn’t take sides or make political statements, because both couples act in less-than-wonderful ways during the story. However, there’s a definite message in the movie about hypocrisy: People who think they’re well-meaning in trying to instill their lifestyle beliefs on others can end up rudely treating those who don’t share the same beliefs as “outsiders” who deserve to be disrespected. And mostly, the movie is about tolerance for other people’s lifestyle choices if those choices aren’t hurting anyone.
Four people (Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan) are credited with writing the screenplay for “The Croods: A New Age.” And the movie does have a tone of “too many cooks in the kitchen” in how this entire story is constructed. The last third of the movie tries to cram in a lot of action in a somewhat messy way. It’s as if the filmmakers remembered that children with short attention spans are a sizeable percentage of the movie’s audience, and the filmmakers felt obligated to pack in some suspenseful chase scenes in this sometimes rambling and unfocused story.
“The Croods: A New Age” director Crawford makes his feature-film directorial debut with this movie, after years of working as a story artist for several animated films, including the first three “Kung Fu Panda” movies, “Trolls” and “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part.” Visually, “The Croods: A New Age” looks better than “The Croods,” because of advances in digital animation since the first “Croods” movie was released. In terms of story, this sequel is inferior to the original, because it’s a little bit all over the place. The plot jumps from the possible love triangle to the tension over social classes to a somewhat bonkers rescue mission that involves a feud over stolen bananas, punch monkeys, Gran losing her wig, and the kidnapping of some of the story’s main characters.
The voice actors elevate the sometimes banal dialogue, with Mann and Cage standing out in their portrayals of the movie’s two characters who have the most opposite personalities (Hope and Grug) in the story. Stone as Eep and Reynolds as Guy also give very good performances, but the love story of Eep and Guy is often overshadowed by the bickering among the rival married couples. And speaking of being overshadowed, the Croods’ two youngest kids (Thunk and Sandy) aren’t given much to do, and their characters have no bearing on this movie’s plot, which essentially wastes the talent of Duke and Crawford.
Musically, “The Croods: A New Age” benefits from the fun score by Mark Mothersbaugh and the selectively spare use of pop songs. (For pop-music overload in animated films, people can watch DreamWorks Animation’s “Trolls” movies.) The Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You” and Tenacious D’s memorable cover version of the song are put to good use in key scenes in “The Croods: A New Age.” The movie isn’t going to win any major awards, but it fulfills its purpose in being a reasonably entertaining diversion for people who like comedic adventure animation.
Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Animation released “The Croods: A New Age” in U.S. cinemas on November 25, 2020.
Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, this musical remake of the 1983 romantic comedy “Valley Girl” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A sheltered San Fernando Valley “good girl,” who’s about to graduate from high school, has a romance with a “bad boy” musician from Hollywood, much to her friends’ disapproval.
Culture Audience: “Valley Girl” will appeal mostly to fans of the original “Valley Girl” movie or fans of 1980s pop music, but they will probably be disappointed in this musical remake, which is too slick for its own good.
The 1983 romantic comedy “Valley Girl” (starring Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman) is the kind of movie that doesn’t need to be remade/re-imagined/rebooted for a modern audience, because it’s a movie about a particular youth subculture that’s meant to stay in the past and shouldn’t be resurrected. Although the 2020 musical remake of “Valley Girl” (directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg) wisely chose to make the movie primarily as a flashback memory to the ’80s, almost everything about this musical smacks of an inauthentic, forced recreation of the effortless 1980s charm that made the original “Valley Girl” movie a cult classic.
In the beginning of the “Valley Girl” musical remake, a pouty, young woman named Ruby (played by Camila Morrone), who’s in her early 20s, stumbles out of a nightclub and asks her mother (whom she still lives with) to come pick her up from the club. Ruby is apparently too tipsy to drive and apparently doesn’t want to call a taxi or ride-sharing service. When they get home, Ruby tells her mother Julie (played by Alicia Silverstone) that she’s in a bad mood because she just broke up with her boyfriend.
The mother is supposed to be the Julie Richman character who was the teenage titular protagonist in the original “Valley Girl” movie. Julie is now a middle-aged fashion designer, who has fond and rosy memories of her teenage years in California’s San Fernando Valley, where she still lives.
As a San Fernando Valley teenager in the ’80s, Julie’s life was like a carefree bubble that revolved around school, going to shopping malls (like the famous Sherman Oaks Galleria), dating, hanging out at the beach, and going to parties with other teens, usually at someone’s house. (Frank Zappa’s 1982 song “Valley Girl,” featuring vocals by his then-teenage daughter Moon Unit Zappa, inspired the idea for the 1983 “Valley Girl” movie. The Zappas were not involved in the movie, and Frank Zappa lost a lawsuit that he filed to prevent the film from being made.)
When she was a senior in high school, Julie fell in love for the first time with a slightly older Hollywood rocker named Randy, who was played by Cage in the original “Valley Girl” movie. As for who Ruby’s father is, he’s mentioned but not seen in the “Valley Girl” remake, which reveals at the end of the film whether or not Randy and Julie ended up living happily ever after.
Julie is very sympathetic about her daughter’s boyfriend breakup, but Julie also starts to tell Ruby about the “good old days,” when her name was Julie Richman and she was a very sheltered teenager in the early-to-mid-80s. (Although the original “Valley Girl” was released in 1983, the ’80s music in the “Valley Girl” musical remake was released in or before 1984. Only true music trivia buffs would notice this change in the movie’s soundtrack.)
Julie’s daughter tries to pretend she doesn’t care about her mother’s nostalgic memories, by groaning to her about her boyfriend problems: “You wouldn’t understand!” And that’s when Julie launches into her “let me tell you about when I was young” story. The rest of the movie occasionally cuts back to the middle-aged Julie and her daughter for exposition purposes, but the majority of the film consists of the flashback memories of Julie, with the characters from the ’80s often singing their dialogues, since this is a musical.
Here we go. Get ready for the cheesiness. Although Jessica Rothe as the teenage Julie does a fairly good job as a singer, she is not convincing at all as a naïve, straight-laced high schooler, which is what Julie is supposed to be. Rothe looks like she’s graduated from high school years ago, instead of someone who’s supposed to still be in high school. Putting her in cutesy and frilly ’80s outfits doesn’t make her look like a teenager.
Deborah Foreman, who played the teenage Julie in the original “Valley Girl” had a mix of innocence and sexiness that made her irresistible to a lot of guys in her orbit. Rothe (who was in her early 30s when she made this “Valley Girl” remake) looks like she’s playing dress-up as a teenager. Because she looks way past the age of a student in high school, it looks ridiculous for her to play such a sheltered goody-two shoes teen. It’s not quite as bad of an age miscast as Olivia Newton-John in the movie “Grease,” but it’s pretty close. At least “Grease” was a great musical. This version of “Valley Girl” is most definitely not.
As for “bad boy” rocker Randy, the original “Valley Girl” had Cage playing him as a kind of a misfit weirdo who didn’t care about the social taboos of a sheltered high school girl from the San Fernando Valley dating a “freak” from Hollywood. In this musical version of “Valley Girl,” there’s nothing quirky, dangerous or even edgy about Randy, who’s played by Josh Whitehouse, in a very bland performance and with very limited singing talent.
In this remake, Randy looks more like he wants to be a heartthrob teen idol (like John Stamos was back in the early ’80s), instead of being a slightly scuzzy, down-on-his-luck rocker, which is what the Randy character is supposed to be. Even the tattoos that the Randy character has in this “Valley Girl” remake look fake, because they probably are. Randy in both “Valley Girl” movies is supposed to be slightly older than Julie, which is one of the reasons why their relationship is slightly taboo. While in the original movie, Cage looked the part, Whitehouse actually looks younger than Rothe, which he is in real life.
The nightclub scenes in this remake also don’t look real at all. You can tell it’s a movie set, compared to the original “Valley Girl” which filmed on location at a real nightclub. The nightclub where the original “Valley Girl” was filmed was called The Central back then, but it became more famous in the 1990s when it was renamed the Viper Room. In the original “Valley Girl,” there was a scene with The Plimsouls performing their song “A Million Miles Away” at the club. In the remake, the female rock duo Deap Vally performs the song.
In fact, almost everything about the “Valley Girl” remake (written by Amy Talkington) feels overly sanitized. It scrubs out all the adult content from the original movie (in other words, some of the funniest scenes) and turns this film into a too-cutesy musical. The only nudity in the remake is when some male students briefly moon someone at the high school. There’s no drug use in the remake, and sex is hinted at but not shown.
The costumes in the “Valley Girl” remake also look very much like costumes (and some of it is intentional, since many of the movie’s scenes take place at a costume party), while the movie’s hair, makeup and production design for the San Fernando Valley scenes are overly exaggerated in pastels and neon. Perhaps this “movie set” look to the film serves a purpose, since it’s supposed to represent the glossy memories of someone nostalgic about their teenage years in the ’80s. But people who’ve seen the original “Valley Girl” (which was directed by Martha Coolidge) will be turned off by this remake’s glibness.
Although the remake removed the gritty and realistic aspects of the original “Valley Girl,” the plot of the original “Valley Girl” is mostly the same in this musical remake, with some notable differences. In both “Valley Girl” movies, Julie (who’s a popular girl at her school) breaks up with a guy that most people expect someone like her to date: a preppy jock who’s also popular at school. But he also happens to be very self-centered, cocky and possessive, which is why Julie breaks up with him. He swears that she’ll regret it, and he arrogantly predicts that she’ll beg him to take her back.
In both movies, Julie meets Randy shortly after the breakup. And it’s the kind of scene where they look at each other in a way that’s obvious that they’re attracted to each other and will eventually get together. In the original “Valley Girl,” Randy and Julie meet at a house party, where he’s shown up uninvited. In the remake, Randy and Julie meet briefly on the beach, and then have their first major flirtation later at a house party.
In the original “Valley Girl,” Julie’s obnoxious ex-boyfriend was named Tommy (played by Michael Bowen). In the “Valley Girl” remake, the ex-boyfriend is named Mickey Bowen (get it?), and he’s played by YouTube star Logan Paul, who’s famous for also being obnoxious in real life, so there doesn’t have to be a lot of acting from him. It’s unknown if the character was named Mickey before or after the filmmakers decided to put Toni Basil’s hit “Mickey” as a big musical number in the film. Yes, it’s as cringeworthy as it sounds.
The choreography by Mandy Moore (of “La La Land” and “So You Think You Can Dance” fame) is actually one of the better aspects of the “Valley Girl” remake. It’s just too bad that the watered-down story and corny dialogue make this movie much more inferior to the original. The remake is essentially a “jukebox musical” with a lot of ’80s hits stuffed into the plot.
There are a few modern updates to the “Valley Girl” remake. The cast is a little more diverse than the first “Valley Girl” film. In the original, all the girls in Julie’s close circle of friends are thin and white. In the remake, Julie’s clique includes an African American named Loryn (played by Ashleigh Murray), whose dream is to be a dancer in music videos, especially for her idol Janet Jackson; plus-sized Stacey (played by Jessie Ennis), who’s unfortunately the butt of jokes and not treated very well by some of her so-called “friends”; and petty-minded Karen (played by Chloe Bennet), who ends up dating Mickey after Julie breaks up with him.
In the original “Valley Girl,” Julie’s friend Loryn (played Elizabeth “E.G.” Dailey) is the one who fools around with Julie’s ex-boyfriend at a party, and they keep their short fling a secret. In the remake, Mickey and Karen openly date each other after Julie has dumped him. His rebound relationship with Karen essentially ends Karen’s friendship with Julie.
But in both movies, all of the San Fernando Valley girls in Julie’s clique still have the same stuck-up attitude about Hollywood, which they think is a place for freaks and weirdos. This social snobbery is why Julie’s friends pressure her to break up with Randy and get back together with her ex-boyfriend. If you know the formula of romantic comedies, you can guess how Julie handles this conflict and how it gets resolved in the end.
Both movies also have teen parties that are chaperoned by adults. Fun fact: Original “Valley Girls” co-stars Foreman and Dailey have cameos in the “Valley Girl” remake. Foreman plays someone who compliments Julie in a store that sells prom dresses (how very meta), while Dailey plays a drunk parent at one of the teen parties. However, the remake doesn’t have the original “Valley Girl” subplot of a “Mrs. Robinson”-type character trying to seduce the teenage guy whom her daughter wants for herself.
Julie’s parents are very different in each movie. In the original “Valley Girl,” Julie’s former hippie parents are much more lenient (her father also smokes marijuana in the movie) than Julie’s parents in the “Valley Girl” remake. For example, in the original “Valley Girl,” Julie’s parents Steve and Sarah (played by Frederic Forrest and Colleen Camp), who run a health-food restaurant, were okay with her staying out all night and dating Randy. In the remake, Julie’s parents Steve and Diana (played by Rob Huebel and Judy Greer) are much more conservative (Steve is a corporate business type), much more protective of Julie, and they don’t approve of her dating Randy.
Another big difference is that in the original “Valley Girl,” Randy’s family is not seen or mentioned at all. But the “Valley Girl” remake goes more into the backstory of Randy’s family, when he reveals that his father abandoned him, and his mother kicked Randy out of their home. And the original “Valley Girl” never showed the bachelor pad where Randy lived (which made him kind of mysterious), whereas the remake shows that Randy (who’s a wannabe rock star) lives in a dumpy apartment in Hollywood with his two band mates: a lesbian bass player named Jack (played by Mae Whitman) and a kooky drummer named Sticky (played by Mario Revolori). Jack is Randy’s best friend/sidekick, which was the role of Fred Bailey (played by Cameron Dye) in the original “Valley Girl” movie.
The “Valley Girl” remake also gives Julie career ambitions, which she did not have in the original movie. In the musical remake, Julie is an aspiring fashion designer who dreams of going to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, but she’s pressured to conform and go to California State University at Northridge, a school that many of her peers from high school also plan to attend.
The other girls in Julie’s Valley Girl clique only have ambitions to go to college so that they can find a husband. As Loryn says to her friends while they’re sunning themselves at the beach, “If I’m not married by the time I’m 23, I’ll kill myself!” If that sounds like an outdated mindset, even for 1980s California, consider that a lot of teenage girls and young women still think this way in very conservative communities.
The “Valley Girl” remake’s hokey dialogue and mediocre acting might be forgivable, but the movie does something that’s pretty unforgivable for fans of the original “Valley Girl” movie. It changed the plot so that Modern English’s “I Melt With You” (the signature song from the original “Valley Girl” soundtrack) is supposed to be written by Randy for Julie. In other words, that means Randy and his band play “I Melt With You” in a serenading scene that’s as dumb as you think it is. Pure garbage.
Since the “Valley Girl” remake ruined “I Melt With You,” here’s a list of ’80s songs that the movie’s cast members remade for the musical scenes, in a less offensive but still fairly cheesy way: Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”; Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation”; a-ha’s “Take on Me”; The Cars’ “You Might Think”; A Flock of Seagulls’ “Space Age Love Song”; The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry”; Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”; and a medley of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough,” Madonna’s “Material Girl,” Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” and Soft Cell’s cover version of “Tainted Love.”
There are also some songs in the movie that are the original artists’ studio recordings, such The Cars’ “Magic,” Duran Duran’s “Rio,” Men at Work’s “Be Good Johnny,” Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” and Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance.” It’s obvious that the filmmakers spent a great deal of the movie’s budget on licensing these hit songs, because there doesn’t appear to have been much of the budget invested in creating a quality film.
Orion Classics released “Valley Girl” in select U.S. drive-in theaters, on digital and on VOD on May 8, 2020.
Culture Representation: The movie’s characters are predominately white (with one African American, one Chinese Canadian and one Native American) who live in the fictional rural town of Arkham, Massachusetts.
Culture Clash: After a meteorite crashes on a family farm and strange things start to happen, the movie’s characters have conflicting degrees of skepticism and beliefs over what is logical science and what is the unexplainable supernatural.
Culture Audience: “Color Out of Space” will appeal the most to fans of campy B-movies in the sci-fi and horror genres.
Sometime in the 2010s, Oscar winner Nicolas Cage stopped being an A-list actor and started doing a steady stream of low-budget films (many of them released direct-to-video), where he usually plays a character who’s somewhere on the crazy spectrum. Cage has been very open in media interviews that his financial problems (wild spending, lawsuits over non-payment and IRS liens) have forced him to sell off many of his prized possessions. Apparently, this downsizing also extends to the budget and quality of movie jobs he’s been taking.
But somewhere along the way, Cage decided to have fun with these C-list movies by going into high-gear campiness in these roles. (His 2018 revenge flick “Mandy” already has a cult following.) Even though Cage tends to make films in the genres of action, drama and horror, make no mistake: His gleefully unhinged performances are now bringing a lot of comedy to his films.
In “Color Out of Space” (which is based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space), Cage plays Nathan Gardner, the patriarch of a five-person clan living on a farm in the fictional rural town of Arkham, Massachusetts. The family, who used to live in a big city, includes Nathan’s wife Theresa (played by Joely Richardson), a recent survivor of breast cancer; teenage daughter Liviana (played by Madeleine Arthur), who fancies herself to be a Wiccan-inspired witch; teenage son Benny (played by Brendan Meyer), a rebellious stoner; and pre-teen son Jack (played by Julian Hillard), a near-perfect child who gets along with everyone.
In the film’s opening scene in a secluded wooden area, Liviana is wearing an outfit that looks like she’s on the way to a Renaissance Faire (cape and all), as she calls out to the spirits of earth, air, water, fire and ether to help heal her mother from cancer. She’s even got a white horse, which might be part of her attempt to look like some kind of fairy mystical princess. This is director Richard Stanley’s not-so-subtle way of telling the audience that Liviana represents someone who believes in the supernatural.
While she’s in this secluded spot, in walks Ward Phillips (played by Elliot Knight), who introduces himself as a hydrologist who’s surveying the water in the area. Ward seems to be kind of amused by Liviana’s outfit and her spiritual ritual, and he makes it clear that he’s a scientist who doesn’t believe in any of that witchy mumbo jumbo. Okay, we get it. Ward and Liviana are opposites.
Back at the farm, Liviana and Benny engage in some verbal sparring and name-calling (something they do several times in the movie) before the family settles in for the night. Their night is massively interrupted when a magenta glow takes over the atmosphere, and there’s a loud boom that feels like an explosion. Running outside, the family sees that a magenta meteorite surrounded by smoke has crashed into the front yard.
Ward and local law enforcement Sheriff Pierce (played by Josh C. Waller), who’s apparently the only cop on duty in this remote area, investigate the meteorite and don’t know what to make of it. Ward, who touches the meteor with his bare hands (not a very safe or scientific thing to do), advises the Gardners not to drink the water from their well until they can figure out what’s going on. Near the meteorite, there’s also a horrible odor that Nathan describes as smelling like a dog has been lit on fire.
Speaking of animals, Nathan is very proud to own several alpacas on the farm. He mentions the alpacas so much in the movie that it’s almost as if the screenwriters (director Stanley and Scarlett Amaris) deliberately made all these references to alpacas so people could make a drinking game out of it. It isn’t long before everyone on the farm (yes, including the alpacas) start to act strangely.
When the meteor first hit, Jack was temporarily in a catatonic state, but then he snapped out of it. Theresa also has a trance-like blackout while she’s cutting carrots in the kitchen. And let’s just say that the carrots aren’t the only things that get sliced. Then just as suddenly as the meteorite appeared, it disappeared from the yard. But the strange occurrences continue, such as weird voices amid static on the phone. And then Jack suddenly acts like he can hear voices that no one else can hear.
And what is famous stoner comedian Tommy Chong doing in this movie? Playing a hippie stoner named Ezra, a recluse who claims that he can find out what’s going on with all of these unexplained and frightening incidents. Ward spends some time at Ezra’s place to hear out his wild theories, but the mystery continues.
There are some glaring plot holes in this movie that are bigger than the crater left by the meteorite. Ward doesn’t do what a real scientist would do—contact his scientist colleagues to get their opinions. He’s the only science-based investigator in the entire movie. And even though the strange sightings make the local TV news (where a reporter openly mocks Nathan in an interview and makes Nathan look like a UFO-sighting nutjob), the publicity doesn’t bring out any curiosity seekers (including scientists) to the farm to take a look for themselves. But hey, this is a low-budget movie with a small cast. Don’t judge too harshly, because this movie doesn’t take itself too seriously.
It becomes apparent that the meteorite brought some non-human, unexpected and unwanted visitors to the area. And things get worse, as some members of the Gardner family develop a gruesome skin condition that leaves them writhing in pain. And one member of the family might or might not descend into madness. (Take a wild guess who it is. )
All of the actors in the film except for Cage are playing it straight in this deliberately bizarre horror flick. Cage’s wild, over-the-top mannerisms invite people to laugh along at the silliness of it all. (There were plenty of laughs at the screening that I attended, and they were all because of how Cage was acting on screen.) The visual effects are standard for this type of low-budget film, except for the last 15 minutes when there is some truly stunning imagery that’s more than a nod to psychedelia.
Crazy Cage, Crazy Chong and crazy, bloody chaos. What more could you want in a horror film? Oh, that’s right. Don’t forget the alpacas.
RLJE Films will release “Color Out of Space” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on January 24, 2020.