Review Round-Up: “Troop Zero,” “VHYes,” And “The Wave”


For the first time in 2020, we bring the review round-up to you fine folks. Yes, today we’re catching up on a trio of movies that I just wasn’t able to put reviews up of until now. The three films getting the treatment here are independent titles that couldn’t be more different (a recurring theme when we do the round-up, I realize). The indies in question are the coming of age dramedy Troop Zero, the surreal retro found footage type flick VHYes, and the trippy science fiction “comedy” The Wave. Are they all worth your time? Are any of them worth it? Read on to find out…

Troop Zero

A cast as strong as this one deserves a slightly better movie than we get here with Troop Zero. A family friendly coming of age story, too often it seems like shortcuts are being taken. Quirky moments substitute for true character development. It all just falls flatter than expected, despite a high cute factor and the presence of reliable actresses like Viola Davis and Allison Janney, along with the underrated McKenna Grace in the lead role. A Sundance Film Festival alumni with a small degree of buzz, it comes out now a year later, with almost no fanfare. Unfortunately, the lack of attention is apt and warranted here.

The film is a family dramedy, set in rural Georgia in 1977. There, a misunderstood girl named Christmas Flint (Grace) has dreams of something bigger. Namely, it’s life in outer space. Living with her father Ramsey (Jim Gaffigan), a struggling lawyer, they’re both dealing poorly with the absence of her mother. Christmas has a few friends, like Joseph (Charlie Shotwell), but is closest with Ramsey’s secretary Miss Rayleen (Davis). When a big Birdie Scouts competition offers her a chance to actually be recorded on NASA’s Golden Record being shot into space, Christmas is determined to make it happen. To that end, she recruits a makeshift troop of Birdie Scouts, under the tutelage of Miss Rayleen, in the hopes of winning. They may be facing long odds, especially against the troop led by Miss Massey (Janney), but as films like this go, it ultimately becomes more about friendship than anything else. Katie Ellwood and Amber Templemore-Finlayson direct (as the team Bert & Bertie) a script by Lucy Alibar, with cinematography by James Whitaker, and a score from Rob Lord. Supporting players include Johanna Colón, Mike Epps, Bella Higginbotham Milan Ray, and more.

There are nice moments here, for sure, but they never quite raise the final product to the level you’d hope for. McKenna Grace is very solid, though the A-list duo of Viola Davis and Allison Janney are wholly under utilized. They’re both fine, but have done such better work in recent years that this just fades immediately from memory. Lucy Alibar’s screenplay skips from beat from beat, never focusing in on anything in particular. Directors Katie Ellwood and Amber Templemore-Finlayson don’t add much style to it either, so we wind up with a movie that’s too often stuck in a low gear, thematically.

Troop Zero could have been the latest Sundance flick to become a breakout crossover hit. Instead, it’s now playing on Amazon Prime and likely will be only seen there. The potential was there, but the end result is just too forgettable to recommend. It’s a shame, too, as expectations here were high. Alas. Look elsewhere for your Davis and Janney fixes…

VHYes

I’m not totally sure when nostalgia for VHS became a thing, but here we are. VHS and Betamax were wholly inferior to DVD (or even Laser Disc, if you want to go there), but as we’ve moved on to Blu-ray and 4K Blu-ray, VHS has held a special place in the hearts of some. Why? There are reasons, but part of it is just that they were there for a whole generation as they grew up. Filmmaker Jack Henry Robbins, son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, is clearly one of those people, as he’s made a flick completely designed to play with that concept. VHYes is like a mix of nostalgia, found footage, and Adult Swim type surrealism. For some, this will be a joy. For others, it will be completely lost on them. Myself? A little of both, though overall I found myself enjoying it a bit more than expected.

The movie is a surreal comedy, though whether you find it funny or not will largely depend on how much you remember the age of VHS. The plot, as much as there is one, centers on a pre teen named Ralph (Mason McNulty) and the new video camera he’s been given. We watch along at what happens after he accidentally records home videos, along with a number of his favorite late night television programs, over his parents’ wedding day tape (Christian Drerup and Jake Head). It bounces around from informercials and retro shows, to some far more disturbing items. The longer it goes on, the weirder it gets, before something ominous surfaces towards the end. Jack Henry Robbins directs and co-writes with Nate Gold and Nunzio Randazzo, while Gold also provides the cinematography. Popping up in the videos are the likes of Rahm Braslaw, Kerri Kenney, Thomas Lennon, Mark Proksch, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Charlyne Yi, Madeline Zima, and more.

Nostalgia mixes with absurdity here, and somehow, it works. In particular, the way Robbins throws in some commentary and satire elevates things. One recurring gag, focused on a censored pornography, manages to be an absolute laugh riot. Other elements fall completely flat, though segments featuring Thomas Lennon and Mark Proksch are amusing. Interestingly, the elements focused on Ralph, our protagonist, are the weakest. Whenever he, as well as his friend, pop up, we just find ourselves waiting for the surrealism and recorded elements to come back and try to make you giggle.

VHYes is a cult movie, through and through, and that’s by design. Jack Henry Robbins had no desire to make something for everyone, and it shows. Overall, if you remember the silliness of the 80s and watching things on VHS, this could be for you. If none of that excites you, the flick is going to be a chore. Give it a shot if you’re curious, as it may well tickle your fancy…

The Wave

Justin Long makes almost anything he’s in better. He’s just such a fun actor to watch that you’ll follow him basically anywhere. He takes that challenge fairly literally in The Wave, a science fiction infused drug tale that’s constantly alternating between being serious and silly, deep and shallow, formulaic and trippy. Long sells it all, bringing you along for the ride, though it’s not a smooth one. The bumps knock it down a peg or two, but the lead performance, as well as some of the interesting visual tricks, make it a drug trip worth indulging in.

This film is a sci-fi tale, though it defies easy description. Frank (Long) is a corporate lawyer, leading a simple yet stressful life, though one that seems to be leading him to a successful career. After finding something that will make his firm a ton of money, his co-worker Jeff (Donald Faison) convinces him to go out celebrating. Frank initially resisted, but a night of bickering with his wife Cheryl (Sarah Minnich) convinces him otherwise. Their night of drinking takes a bizarre turn when, led to a party by two girls, Frank ends up taking a hallucinogenic drug that completely alters his perception of the world. Waking up the next morning, he tries to move about his day, but the hallucinogen takes him on a psychedelic quest through his planned board meeting, as well as a number of weirder locales. As Frank tries to get a grip and find a path between reality and fantasy, he also discovers that he’s on a mission of far more importance, one that could change him forever. Gille Klabin directs a screenplay by Carl W. Lucas, with cinematography by Aaron Grasso. Supporting players include the likes of Ronnie Gene Blevins, Tommy Flanagan, Bill Sage, Sheila Vand, Katia Winter, and more.

There are missteps here, but the combination of Justin Long and the overall vibe wind up saving the day, especially when mixed with some of Klabin’s visual stylings. Long as a tripping individual is great, and he’s compelling as a man on a mission as well. Bouncing him around a psychedelic story is never boring, though when Klabin and scribe Lucas try to make things deeper, you start to realize how dumb some of it is. Nothing torpedoes the movie, but it does get taken down a peg. Mostly, it’s the Long performance that has this one being worth your time.

The Wave is worth watching for anyone who enjoys seeing Just Long be harried. Long makes it look so effortless and so fun, so even when the plot makes no sense, you follow along. With stronger surrounding elements, this would have been tremendous. Instead, it’s just a flawed yet fun diversion with Long doing his normal strong work. Give it a look and you’ll probably agree with me, at the very least in terms of Long’s performance…



All three of these are in theaters and On Demand now!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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