Double Feature: Booksmart (2019) & Carrie Pilby (2016)

Booksmart (2019)

Director: Olivia Wilde

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Victoria Ruesga, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Eduardo Franco, Nico Hiraga

On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night. – IMDB

Olivia Wilde’s debut directorial feature film is a raunchy teen party film. Booksmart is a pretty fun little high school graduation romp that circles around two girls who have given up their social life for the duration of high school to excel in her studies to realize on the day before graduation that their dedication to the books was in vain as other students who also had fun also got into great Ivy League schools.

One night adventures are something that are quite the fun ride most of the time like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Booksmart actually works in a similar structure as the two best friends try to hunt down the biggest party that they should be at before their high school life is over but ends up in many other places and meeting some strange people along the way. The fun in all of it is that they soon realize that their classmates are more than meets the eye whether it is quirky or different, they all have their own passions and don’t quite have everything as together as they make it seem. Perhaps they don’t quite see it until the end, but a lot of the assumptions they make are eventually overturned throughout the night one by one as they get caught up in different scenarios.

Booksmart is very focused on its two young leading actresses, Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein playing Amy and Molly respectively. These two bring their characters to life really well. The two both reveal some glaring differences that make them opposites which all comes crashing down as their own issues surface however, these two do have something great that defines their friendship in a positive way in that they have their own structure as friends and their own rules and words and the essence of their friendship is further encouraging as the two take every moment to lift each other up. The best is when they get changed into whatever outfit and they give each other endless oddly structured compliments which adds humor but is very endearing as well. All great friendships do have those little things and its what makes their feel genuine.

If there was something to nitpick about the film, it has to be that some scenes are taken a little overboard mostly in comedy which makes it sometimes a little unbearable and perhaps could turn some people away as it does come on a little strong. Its not too frequent but the quirkiness and oddities could sometimes feel that way. One of the bigger examples could be Billie Lourd’s character which pops up everywhere. Most of the time, she is very funny and her character does come together by the end when her underlying characteristics are further defined as they know the other people. There really isn’t a whole lot to criticize for this film. Booksmart has a lot of elements that work really well for a teen coming of age comedy about best friends. Its just a lot of fun.

Carrie Pilby (2016)

Director: Susan Johnson

Cast: Bel Powley, Nathan Lane, William Moseley, Desmin Borges, Vanessa Bayer, Colin O’Donoghue, Jason Ritter, Gabriel Byrne

A person of high intelligence struggles to make sense of the world as it relates to morality, relationships, sex, and leaving her apartment. – IMDB

Based on the novel of the same name by Caren Lissner, Susan Johnson’s full length feature directorial debut was for Carrie Pilby which centers around a young girl with high intelligence and realizes that outside of her books and routine, there really isn’t much else. In terms of human relationships, she lacks the ability to find her place, losing out on the social life that she should have at her age. When her therapist makes a list that she needs to complete, her life slowly starts to form together as the emotions with the people she meets brings back a past event that overshadows her in a certain way.

Carrie Pilby is a rather interesting film. The film has some great characters and it focuses a lot on the whole socialization of a the character as she enters the adult world ahead of her time, missing out on the experiences that could craft those skills. Instead her life is filled with books. Honestly, I don’t really see the issues with it being a reader and all, right? However, for her, its a much deeper issue that her therapist is addressing linking back to her family and her past. While not exactly a fish out of water sort of story, Carrie is an odd character and her interactions do turn out to be a little comedic when she easily overthinks a situation or misunderstands certain scenarios or simply making some bad judgment calls. However, it all dials down to her character development being set in a rather emotionless world to protect herself and these tasks help her take down her walls gradually and let those emotions back in. The execution of that element is done very well and Bel Powley does a great job portraying the character.

While Carrie’s character is done pretty well, the other characters do leave a little to be desired as they are designed fairly thin. The other more prominent character does go to her therapist played by Nathan Lane who does a rather decent job to achieve the means. The other characters are just scattered people from dates to neighbors to her father who really just help push her to learn more and see more about other people in the world to see what humanity is and embracing the imperfections of the world. It captures the essence of coming of age pretty well overall.

Poupelle of Chimney Town (2020)

Poupelle of Chimney Town (2020)

Director: Yusuke Hirota

English voice cast: Tony Hale, Antonio Raul Corbo, Stephen Root, Misty Leek Hasan Minhaj, Greg Chun, Ray Chase, James Mathis III

A factory town is covered by chimney smoke, and as the townspeople haven’t see the sky in centuries, they no longer believe that stars exist. A chimney sweep and a friendly monster named Poupelle decide to prove that stars are real. – IMDB

Mostly known for his role as computer graphics animator, director Yusuke Hirota has his directorial debut with this colorful adaptation of Akihiro Nishino’s children picture book of the same name, Poupelle of Chimney Town, who also writes the screenplay. Poupelle of Chimney Town is a family fantasy animated film set on an island which is covered in chimney smoke with no knowledge of anything outside of their world. Carrying his disappeared father’s story in his mind, Lubicchi works as a chimney sweep to be closer to the sky in hopes of seeing the elusive stars that his father constantly talked about until he meets a monster that everyone called Garbage Man and he names Poupelle (nice play on the French world poubelle for garbage). As their friendship flourishes and he tries to hide Poupelle with a little help, they soon realize that Poupelle might not be just a monster while the constant doubt of the outside world and even the resistance of these ideas.

Poupelle of Chimney Town is pretty family friendly. In fact, it does play like a children’s book. The screenplay being written by the author of the source material definitely does fill in some of those boxes (although I have never read the source material itself). However, the story does flow relatively well. There are some parts that feel a little disjointed or the English dub dialogue might feel like it jumps into the next scene a little awkwardly. However, the concept of the whole story is there. As an animated film, the world itself being covered in chimney smoke doesn’t stop the actual film to be very colorful in appearance which brings the entire Chimney Town setting to life. The film also uses different angles for various sequences which almost plays out like a movie but at times like a video game scene and even a few musical scenes. It may feel a little odd, mostly fun but does add a little uniqueness to the whole execution.

The story is the main focus as the characters are pretty simple and easy to understand. There are some rather witty characters that pop in and out, much like any children’s book someone who poses as resistance and others that are bullies. Whether we look at Poupelle or Lubicchi who are primarily the main focus of the whole story, their goal is still pretty simple. The story talks about friendship, family, and most importantly, belief. The whole end game is to see whether there are stars in the sky and prove that Lubicchi’s dad wasn’t lying about this and being shamed for it. As the government gets in the way posing as the main resistance and others trying to stop life from the norm, the whole story unfolds both in adventure and drama, sometimes the tone does also jump around a little abruptly. It does all come to a rather satisfying and slightly emotional revelation. It seems a little far-fetched but if you do get immersed into the story about those living in this Chimney Town, the whole idea of seeing the miraculous sky is pretty cool.

Overall, Poupelle of Chimney Town is a decent family friendly animated film. There are a few darker moments and a tad bit of violence but the story itself is pretty straight forward and does feel rather magical and colorful, making it also visually appealing. It looks like a story book that comes to life for the most part in its art style. There are some fun characters and some cool adventures. Sure, the story feels like it has a little disjointedness whether in tone or story progression at times but the main message and story does carry forward well enough.

*Poupelle of Chimney Town opened in theatres across North America on January 7, 2022*

*Screener provided by Prise Media Group*

Double Feature: 6 Years (2015) & All The Bright Places (2020)

6 Years (2015)

Director (and writer): Hannah Fidell

Cast: Taissa Farmiga, Ben Rosenfield, Lindsay Burdge, Joshua Leonard, Jennifer Lafleur, Peter Vack, Dana Wheeler- Nicholson, Molly McMichael, Alysia Lucas

A young couple, bound by a seemingly ideal love, begin to unravel as unexpected opportunities spin them down a volatile and violent path and threaten the future they had always imagined. – IMDB

6 Years is a familiar story about young romance. One that talks about about a lengthy young romance that’s been around for years with plans of their future that suddenly get shifted when their future plans take on the unexpected changes because of new opportunities. Do they continue or do they end it? That is the main question these movies take its audience on.

Front and center for this film is Mel and Dan who start the film off in a hot and heavy sex scene. Its a unique way to start it as it does show off their intimacy together. However, the film actually sets them apart a lot of the times to interact with their new circle of friends or their work environment as they start stepping into the young adult path into their new career paths. Mel’s friends are still about getting drunk and immature about their decisions, giving a glimpse of the younger age and the people she hangs out with that also makes for some bad decision-making. However, Dan is different. He feels more settled and grounded and just waiting for his turn to grow in his career and making the connections he needs by associating with work friends. As the film puts them in their own social environment and not so much involved in each other’s social environment, the insecurity also sets in, especially for Mel who starts to react both emotionally and aggressively. The film doesn’t take it too far but the hints of the changes in the essence of their relationship is there.

With that said, the film is mostly about these two characters played by Taissa Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield. Each doing a rather decent job at handling their roles respectively as they spiral away. Perhaps, some of the issues is mostly with the script as some of the dialogue feels rather annoying, no matter the scenario of Mel with her friends or Dan with his friends in the social environment. No one in this film other than them seems to believe that a 6 year relationship at their age would work and with all that negative force, its hard to not have some doubt planted in it. But then, when you think deeper, this also does bring up the issues that have been hidden from the comfort of having each other in their lives.

6 Years is a pretty basic film and whether you connect to the story itself and the content will probably determine how much you enjoy it in the end. These characters have their certain level of depths. The film does lack a little progress in general and makes some strong scenes to instigate those changes. However, the dialogue sometimes does get a little grating and annoying in parts. It does feel rather real and raw in some cases where the doubt does feel reasonable because their plans were made with stability and belief that there won’t be any change to their current situation, which also shows their naivety to real life. That is what brings these character to life and what makes this film an interesting one in terms of the material but lacks a little in the execution of the material to make it completely engaging with the whole situation.

All The Bright Places (2020)

Director: Brett Haley

Cast: Elle Fanning, Justice Smith, Alexandra Shipp, Kelli O’Hara, Lamar Johnson, Virginia Gardner, Felix Mallard, Sofia Hasmik, Keegan-Michael Key, Luke Wilson, Chris Grace

The story of Violet and Theodore, who meet and change each other’s lives forever. As they struggle with the emotional and physical scars of their past, they discover that even the smallest places and moments can mean something. – IMDB

*Published in Friday Film Club HERE*

Adapted from a novel of the same name by Jennifer Niven (review) who also co-writes the adapted screenplay, All The Bright Places tells the story of two teenagers, Violet and Finch who are both living unhappily for their own reasons. Violet is living with survivor guilt after her sister’s death which gives her a fear of cars and limits her to things that she finds are safe. Finch is a little more obscure as he is having consulting sessions at school with the counselor after an incident and is considered a freak by other students. When they work together on a project to wander the town, Finch takes Violet to a lot of adventures that slowly pulls her out of her sadness but slowly he retreats into his own darkness and struggles to get out from it. 

While its been a few years since I’ve read the novel itself, the adaptation does have some differences from the novel but does keep it in the important parts to make it the story effective. One of the key elements of the story is between the two main characters Violet and Finch and in turn their portrayal by the two main leads, Elle Fanning and Justice Smith. These two young actor and actress do capture their roles really well especially since they each have their own struggles. Justice Smith having the more obscure and complex one which never truly gets addressed as to what he has but his struggles from past to present is constantly shown in little details on screen. However, the film is only about these moments but rather it spends much of the time with Finch helping Violet find her happiness and smile again to break free of her own guilt and in turn, their adventures while rather insignificant at the beginning, each has their own meaning.

All The Bright Places has a very strong source material to begin with and a rather surprising ending when Finch gets a much more dramatic turn of events in its set up in comparison to the film. However, the film does capture the essence of the story in general which focuses on the neglect, ignorance, unknowns as well as struggles with mental illness in general and how Finch’s character is trapped in something he doesn’t quite understand but no one seems to notice that he needs the help either.

All The Bright Places might look like a teen romance that can just be brushed over but while there is some romance between Finch and Violet, the story is much more meaningful and has a lot of depth for what its trying to portray. Plus, Elle Fanning and Justice Smith does deliver some solid performances to capture these two teens very well from start to finish to truly feel their mental transition in both Violet and Finch right down to a very touching speech with Violet recapping the lessons she learned from the whole experience with Finch.

Schemes in Antiques (古董局中局, 2021)

Schemes in Antiques (古董局中局, 2021)

Director: Derek Kwok

Cast: Jiayin Lei, Xian Li, Zhilei Xin, You Ge, Tao Guo, Mei Yong

Adapted from Ma Boyong’s novel of the same name, the film tells the story of a series of adventures that occurred when the descendants of the five veins made a wish to find out the truth about the Buddha head of Wu Zetian Mingtang in the Tang Dynasty. – IMDB

It’s always nice to have a film that delivers exactly what it says. Literally. Schemes in Antiques is exactly a plot revolving schemes in antiques. This Chinese film is a treasure hunt adventure which touches on a little bit of Chinese history and antiques. While the structure of the plot isn’t exactly novel, the approach using the Chinese antiques and following the characters to solve the puzzles to go to the next clue to find the elusive Buddha head that caused the main character’s family history to be tainted, leaving him in the undignified state that he lives in. There are secrets and twists and adventure plus a bit of family drama in the backstory that works well together.

Schemes in Antiques may seem like very straightforward just from its title alone and probably taking away a bit of the mystery itself. However, it has its own sort of fun elements. Its a plot which centers around a race to finding the truth behind this artifact that was supposed given to Japan but turns out to be fake. As two descendants go on this hunt, their different strengths lead them in different pacings on the trail. Both of these two characters have their own family legacies to fight for with the main character Xu Yuan having a much more direct motive: to find out the truth behind whether his ancestors did disgrace their family name.

The cast itself is pretty decent. The main character, Xu Yuan played by Jiayin Lei is pretty well-casted. While I haven’t seen this actor other than in variety shows, he does capture this role which floats between the constantly drunk electronic store owner with an exceptional antique knowledge living in the shadows of his disgraced family name from his grandfather and the neglect from his own father. However, his encounter with the daughter of one of the members of the antique society becomes an alliance that takes them for quite the dangerous adventure. In a film full of men, this character shines out played by Zhilei Xin who has her own motives to prove that a woman can also amount to purpose to break his father’s old-fashioned mindset. Their competition or opposition is played by Xian Li, the only cast here that I am familiar with especially after his burst of fame after Chinese TV drama series Go Go Squid! (one of my absolute favorite Chinese series as a side note) which has opened up the doors to a huge variety of roles in the past few years. He captures this role pretty well as his character straddles a line throughout as someone with ulterior motives but remains relatively mysterious right up to the end.

Overall, Hong Kong director and screenwriter Derek Kwok’s venture into the China market with this film is a pretty fun one. The runtime is a little wild at over 2 hours and at times feels a little lengthy but the adventure and action is pretty well done and adds in a little bit of comedy, which primarily is in the beginning. The film does build up a certain level of tension by the end and adds a decent twist to the plot in terms of character and the treasure hunt turnout for this antique. With a decent cast and a focus on the Chinese history and adventure based on some puzzle-oriented clues with some Chinese origins as well, it gives the film a unique angle to a fairly basic treasure hunt adventure film.

*Screener provided by Taro PR*

Holiday Marathon: A Castle For Christmas (2021)

A Castle For Christmas (2021)

Director: Mary Lambert

Cast: Brooke Shields, Cary Elwes, Lee Ross, Andi Osho, Tiny Gray, Eilidh Loan, Stephen Oswald, Vanessa Grasse, Desiree Burch

To escape a scandal, a bestselling author journeys to Scotland, where she falls in love with a castle – and faces off with the grumpy duke who owns it. – IMDB

Looking at A Castle For Christmas, I couldn’t help but ask two questions. The first is when was the last time I saw Brooke Shields and the second, when was the last time Cary Elwes was in a romantic comedy? Was it The Princess Bride? On top of that, this film is directed by Mary Lambert who has directed plenty of horror films but not so much romance (as I take a quick look over her filmography and yet, she is at the helm of this film.

Set in the small town Scotland setting and mostly in a castle, A Castle For Christmas is really not all that bad. The cast helps a lot and the whole tone is pretty nice. The plot points do have some odd moments that feel like it edited out a scene or two that was supposed to link it all together. The romance at times is a little bit on the cringey side of things but the setting is really nice for Christmas as it brings these two characters together. The holiday element is also done pretty well also as they transform the castle into a more festive setting and giving it a little more life.

The cast is really the highlight here. Whether we look at the main leads or the supporting cast, they all add a lot of charm to this small town and breathe more life into the film as a whole. The little discussions as they knit or decorate together. It makes the famous author on the run feel accepted when this group understands her point more than the others in the big city. There is a very positive feel-good vibe from those moments alone. It somehow puts the romance element in the background. However, thats not saying that Cary Elwes and Brooke Shields in their respective leading roles should be ignored. Brooke Shields fits into this role nicely whereas Cary Elwes feels at times a little awkward. However, his character is set as a bit of a loner so where he shines is before the whole romantic bits start with their little feud as he tries to get her to leave and she works hard to fit in and stay.

Overall, A Castle For Christmas is an alright holiday romantic comedy. Its cast does it the most favors and makes it a fun feel good film. The romance gets lost a little in the whole setting and the holiday and the supporting cast from the small town and yet, that does do the film a lot of favors as the romance element isn’t its strongest but Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes does fit relativelt well in their individual roles.

Double Feature: A California Christmas (2020) & A California Christmas: City Lights (2021)

A California Christmas (2020)

Director: Shaun Paul Piccinino

Cast: Lauren Swickard, Josh Swickard, Ali Afshar, David Del Rio, Katelyn Epperly, Amanda Detmer, Natalia Mann, Gunnar Anderson, Julie Lancaster

With his carefree lifestyle on the line, a wealthy charmer poses as a ranch hand to get a hardworking farmer to sell her family’s land before Christmas. – IMDB

Being from a place where a white Christmas is usually how it goes, these snowless holiday films sometimes do feel a little strange as it focuses more on the actual romance than the holiday but I suppose that’s how it goes with these sort of Netflix-style “Hallmark” films. A California Christmas is really rather basic. In fact, everything is very simple and predictable whether its the characters to the whole plot itself. It doesn’t carry a whole lot of depth. In these cases, its saving grace will be the chemistry and its setting which the whole small-town farmland has its little fun moments while the chemistry does work seeing as the two leads are actually married in real life which definitely helps things and makes it feel rather natural.

What saves this movie a little bit is that the rich spoiled brat male lead comes to this town to try to pretend to be someone else and use that as a manipulative plot to get them to sell as per his company and his mother the CEO’s request, with that plot comes the blending together and a somewhat fish out of water story as he learns how to do all these farm tasks, posing as a farm hand called Manny who ends up trading up that life for a rather relaxing one with his assistant, Leo. Where the film did have its most fun was the ridiculous and rather comedic moments between Leo and Manny as their friendship grew throughout. Of course, the romance wasn’t all too bad either considering they pulled in a family angle that tugged a little on the heartstrings.

A California Christmas is really everything that you’d expect from this type of holiday romance. Its acceptable for those who enjoy these films but nothing too special for anyone looking for something more.

A California Christmas: City Lights (2021)

Director: Shaun Paul Piccinino

Cast: Lauren Swickard, Josh Swickard, Ali Afshar, David Del Rio, Natalia Mann, Raquel Dominguez, Laura James, Noah James, Julie Lancaster

Follows Callie and Joseph one year after they fell in love, now running a dairy farm and winery, but their romance is threatened when business and family obligations call Joseph back to the city. – IMDB

The sequel of last year’s A California Christmas moves the farmland setting to the city lights of San Francisco as Joseph is summoned back to the city to take care of the company as his mother runs off and passes the duties over to him. Faced with the upcoming nuptials and fitting into the city as well as the different person that Joseph seems to be in the city as well as a lot of revelations about his past life there, Callie starts to have her own doubts.

A California Christmas: City Lights is a step down from the first film. While the first was predictable, this sequel actually feels a lot more unnecessary. Some things in the script feel like a stretch and there is this very odd tone especially with some very cheesy and over the top moments, specifically one where its probably meant to be humorous but didn’t quite hit that way with Manny’s character as he tries to capture the attention of Callie’s best friend Brandy. Its a rather empty sort of pursuit as the connection goes from nothing to something in a very short amount of time. The family element also gets traded out as Callie and Joseph is away in another city but still trying to get those moments in.

The focus is still on Callie and Joseph, the main couple here who is caught up in this new location and new responsibilities respectively. Between the plots of the ex-girlfriend and this whole other side of Joseph comes to light for Callie, it creates these moments of tension as the city undoubtedly tears them apart literally, making it hard to find time to spend together. This plotline actually is one that I’m not a huge fan of in general. Call it a romance film issue that is used so frequently with just secrets and lack of communication which is usually the source all the problems. While its inevitable that it needs to be used to create conflict, it also feels like for the frequent viewer of such films, it such a simple solution whether its talking things through or just commuting to see each other to sort things out whether than each sulking in their own corners.

Sure, I didn’t have high expectations for A California Christmas: City Lights since the first movie was a rather average sort of viewing experience. This film however took some very odd and silly plot points that just felt like while the backdrop of San Francisco has some really nice cityscape, and the world they shift to is rather glamorous, the film in general is dull. It actually took quite a few sittings to get through it. Some of the issues once resolved were pretty decent but the script and the execution was just not too balanced.

Holidays Marathon: The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star (2021)

The Princess Switch 3: Romancing The Star (2021)

Director: Mike Rohl

Cast: Vanessa Hudgens, Remy Hii, Sam Palladio, Nick Sagar, Amanda Donohue, Florence Hall, Ricky Norwood, Suanne Braun, Mark Fleischmann, Will Kemp

When a priceless relic is stolen, Queen Margaret and Princess Stacy enlist the help of Margaret’s cousin Fiona teams with a man from her past to retrieve it, with romance and resulting in a very unexpected switch. – IMDB

After two The Princess Switch movies, its really hard to think about what other roles they could switch at this point. Of course, last time’s introduction of the royal cousin comes into play as she amends her bad ways by helping them leading the story to focus on her this time around and her little story about why she is the way she is. To be fair, you have to love Vanessa Hudgens a lot to watch these films since she takes up 3 entire roles on her own. The only thing missing is if they cross worlds again and bring in her role from The Knight Before Christmas as another role for her. Now that film is majorly lacking a sequel although as a form of sequel for this film series might not be exactly what I am waiting for.

The Princess Switch 3 : Romancing The Star is actually not too bad. If anything, its along the same enjoyment level as the second film. Some things feel ridiculous especially in plot when the switch is now a last resort situation so seeing the imitation of imitation for Vanessa Hudgens actually is rather comedic especially when the other versions mock each other. Fiona is a huge change since that character wears over the top outfits and has a big personality, making both Margaret and Stacy pretending to be her also full of craziness. The films as they progressed do somehow out of their own craziness has their own logic and it seems logical that it starts off from a basic switch between two people and now its more about the other schemes and giving each of these Vanessa Hudgens’ their own sort of story as well. The romance and whatnot is not anything unique in all honesty but there is a feel good element even if this one hits some cringe-y moments.

With that said, the star of the show is Vanessa Hudgens and she does take each of these roles and runs with it. It sure is fun to see her really showing a lot of different sides of the people that she plays. It gets a little odd sometimes but at this point of the third movie, its not hard to accept a lot of it no matter as Stacy, Margaret or Fiona. Of course, this time’s focus is a lot more on Fiona and Margaret as they do the big switch and its great to see Margaret pretending to be Fiona even when we all know that its just the same person acting everything, normally or pretending. Its really hard to explain but somehow those moments still are the best in the film. The love arc is also a focus here as they usually are and this time its for Fiona as she embraces a childhood friend and a quick fling which of course meant more than she is ready to admit with Peter, played by Remy Hii (also in Crazy Rich Asians). Their moments are a little bit cringe-y as they have this very in-your-face type of chemistry with the long stares and paused moments close to each other. It tries really hard but I’m not exactly sure the chemistry is there although Remy Hii is a pretty charming guy and fairly suitable to be in the role.

Overall, The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star is alright. Its nothing to call home about in terms of a sequel but there are some fun bits. Since I do enjoy Vanessa Hudgens, seeing her everywhere in this film doing all these different personalities and pretending to be another version of someone adds a lot of humor and fun. There are some awkward moments and the romance is not exactly my fave of the three films but it has that whole heist and reverse heist stealthy element that does give it a different sort of angle which somehow works to a certain extent.

Holidays Marathon: Love Hard (2021)

Love Hard (2021)

Director: Hernan Jimenez

Cast: Nina Dobrev, Jimmy O. Yang, Darren Barnet, James Saito, Rebecca Staab, Harry Shum Jr., Althea Kaye, Mikaela Hoover, Matty Finochio, Heather McMahan

An LA girl, unlucky in love, falls for an East Coast guy on a dating app and decides to surprise him for the holidays, only to discover that she’s been catfished. This lighthearted romantic comedy chronicles her attempt to reel in love. – IMDB

As Netflix steps up its game a little, its kind of a mixed bag when it comes to holiday films. Love Hard was one that caught my eye immediately for 2 reasons. The first being Nina Dobrev that I’ve been following since The Vampire Diaries which is a show that I did love (not so sure about how much I love it now but maybe it’ll be a fun experiment to see how I feel about it now that I’m in my 30s). The second reason being Jimmy O. Yang who seems to be popping up on my radar a lot and I do like his humor quite a bit. While I didn’t expect him to be casted in a romantic comedy, it is nice to see him in it especially when Love Hard is pretty cute when it brings the whole modernized dating scene up front for people looking for love online and the many dangers that could happen as well as the concept of what perfect love is while also making a play on two movies I do like a lot: Love Actually and Die Hard.

Love Hard is a pretty fun romantic comedy. Its not exactly unpredictable as most rom-coms nowadays tend to be lacking on that front. However, with the small town vibe and bringing in the family element in terms of expectations and love on all fronts, Love Hard is pretty well-crafted. It has its heartwarming moments and also some silly ones as well but the chemistry between Nina Dobrev’s Natalie and Jimmy O. Yang’s Josh is pretty decent. They have some really meaningful conversations about romance and encouragement towards being themselves but also uses its comedic comebacks especially for Jimmy O. Yang’s character pretty well also. The whole cast is pretty cool with Harry Shum Jr. playing the attention seeking brother but also getting to flex those singing skills, that I personally haven’t heard since his Glee days. Much like the whole family dynamic of the Lin household, plus all these family holiday films needs a wild grandma and they had one here as well.

Is Love Hard something really out of the ordinary? The plot itself definitely isn’t. It has some of the “How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days” plot where in this case is a blogger with her column on failed online dating but also adds that different ethnic backgrounds angle as they play with some of the Asian backgrounds even if the family feels pretty much assimilated to the small-town US lifestyle. A lot of the Asian household values whether its family business or following dreams or family expectations all come into play here which does feel rather realistic. If there was one thing that I’d nitpick on this was that the film spent a lot of time on Natalie’s angle, probably for most of the film and then suddenly near the end, it switches over to Josh’s angle in the final act which felt a little odd to do since Natalie felt like the character to connect with throughout and then suddenly, the switch with that one scene with Josh near the end felt a little misplaced. Its still a good scene and adds to his character.

Overall, its a harmless holiday romantic comedy. It has a lot of Christmas elements. There’s a good balance between comedy and romance. It also has some fun Christmas moments from putting up the Christmas tree to family moments to Christmas caroling, etc. It does tick a good few of those boxes for what this film sells itself as which all works together in a fun way. Of course, for people who don’t really enjoy romantic comedies, probably not for you but if you like Jimmy O. Yang’s comedy style and romantic comedies are acceptable to you, its a worth a watch.

Double Feature: Frozen 2 (2019) & Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Frozen 2 (2019)

Directors: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

Voice Cast: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Martha Primpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews, Jeremy Sisto, Aurora Aksnes

Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven leave Arendelle to travel to an ancient, autumn-bound forest of an enchanted land. They set out to find the origin of Elsa’s powers in order to save their kingdom. – IMDB

The sequel of Frozen follows the group as Arendelle has a magical catastrophe hit the town and Anna, Elsa, Kristof, Olaf and Sven follow a childhood tale that Anna and Elsa’s mother told them to find an enchanted land which is covered by a mysterious mist when the unknown cause of war between Arendelle and Northuldra which angered the spirits.

Frozen 2 still packs in the musical tunes and still has the fun dialogue and fantastic voice cast with some comedy and adventure. The tunes itself aren’t quite as catchy as the first film. The main elements are still there but this story already has the first film’s foundation so dives into the connecting pieces about their parents, Arendelle’s past, Elsa’s powers, etc. It adds more magical elements in this enchanted land mostly in the form of the different spirits. It gives a playful side to the air and fire spirit as swirling leaves and a cute fiery salamander. There are water horses in the ocean and lots of fun little enchanting moments. Plus, it adds in the silliness with Kristoff trying to propose to Anna and Olaf enjoying being permanently a snowman.

Overall, Frozen 2 is a sequel and one of the better ones for sure. The story trajectory is pretty good plus it gives both the sisters the strength to grow separately as their journey splits it halfway through. They have some throwbacks to the first film which is fun but also some extensions to it and adds even more magic to the whole situation. Its definitely something that has always been very enchanting plus these new princesses don’t always need a man pursuing them and more of a personal growth sort of story which definitely applies here for Elsa. Its an overall fun time.

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Directors: Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada, Paul Briggs

Voice Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Izaac Wong, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Jona Xiao, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong, Alan Tudyk

In a realm known as Kumandra, a re-imagined Earth inhabited by an ancient civilization, a warrior named Raya is determined to find the last dragon. – IMDB

Talking about the new princesses without a man pursuing them, Raya and the Last Dragon is very much that. Raya is such a beautiful story and sadly one that feels not seen as much due to the pandemic and it hit Disney Plus fairly quickly and not everyone has the streaming service.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a story about trust wrapped up in a world where the dragons have all disappeared and the last magical stone that preserves the dragon’s power is in possession by Heart which is prosperous and has big dreams by the King to reunite everyone in peace despite everything. However, every other part of the realm named after different parts of the dragons are exactly as that: separated and some with jealousy as they believe the stone was unfairly brought there and manipulating the trust, they ended up breaking it and taking parts of it for themselves and awakening the evil Druun which turns everyone in their path to stone. Years later, after being the object of manipulation, she chases after the clues to find the last dragon Sisu and of course does and proceeds to repossess the pieces of the stones in the different places to hopefully bring her father back to life.

There’s a lot to love about Raya and the Last Dragon. The message it delivers is really nice. Its a little simplistic and a tad naive but this is a Disney animated film so it remains valid to give that sort of hope trying to trust others and reunite everyone to be stronger. The voice cast here is already really good especially with Sisu being voiced be Awkwafina who is definitely a huge highlight especially with all the delivery of some very clever and funny dialogue adding some quirk to the last dragon. Much like the different members that join Raya’s crew as she goes on this adventure. There’s humor and action and remains very fast-paced. Its a really fun time and very well-paced. The setting for each of the tribes are also very different so it also adds in some change in this big Kumandra land.

Overall, Raya and the Last Dragon is really underrated. Sure, its not perfect and they don’t break out in song and dance but the story has a very strong princess figure who does have a decent character development throughout, not to mention that Raya and even the other tribe’s daughter Namaari, voiced by Gemma Chan, are very badass. The animation is really nice capturing the colorful and the more dull areas, having a whole group of well-crafted characters voiced by a lovely cast and the story execution is pretty decent packing in a decent balance in drama, humor and adventure.

Found (2021)

Found (2021)

Director: Amanda Lipitz

The story of three American teenage girls-each adopted from China-who discover they are blood-related cousins on 23andMe. Their online meeting inspires the young women to confront the burning questions they have about their lost history. – IMDB

Found is a 2021 Netflix documentary which talks about three Chinese girls that were adopted to US to different families in different states but finds they are blood-related cousins through an ancestry DNA test by 23andMe and through their various conversations decides to reach out to a Chinese genealogist to look for their roots from their orphanage to where they were left and potentially seek their parents to get some answers as they get ready for their trip to China together to get to their own family history more.

Found is a really great topic to explore. As China recently approved their three child policy in 2021, the one child policy may feel like a good while ago but cannot be forgotten as many children were given up during this time due to the hefty penalties for having more than one child. This lead to a lot of families giving up their children leaving them in bustling areas in front of government buildings or streets creating stories like the ones of these three girls. The documentary does a great focus on how detailed the genealogy research is especially the in-depth research and even the emotional burdens as they follow her to meet various potential matches.

The first part plays a lot around the researches and communications from the genealogy while the second part follows the girls as they go through this China trip that leads them to meet the ladies who took care of them at their adoption centers or the places that they were left while also exploring the country itself. Breaking it down, the first part gives a lot of back story primarily as the genealogist follows the different leads and talks to the different potential match. At the same time, being a girl born in China, she also shares some of the mentality behind the gender of a child in the society in certain family structures. At the same time, her research and results also contrast with the mixed emotions behind the adopted girls as they discuss their feelings towards this whole situation.

The documentary plays on a few elements and shows the genealogy and how it is rather hard to find matches especially in face of strong laws that perhaps stop parents from wanting to find the children that they have given up but it does focus on both of sides of the story. While it doesn’t specifically reference the details of the one child policy, the different conversations also sheds some light on the people most affected by this law to its penalty. Its a rather thorough documentary and these three young girls also learn quite a bit from following their roots and doing their trip together and get some kind of closure, the whole situation feels both touching and amazing and perhaps a nice story for others to decide whether they want to try to seek out their own roots and explore their place of origin, whether or not finding their parents is really up to chance.

Genuine human emotions, heartwarming and a decent look at these three adoption stories as well as the genealogy portion of searching for answers and root all culminate together in this documentary. Its well-made and hits the points fairly well. While it doesn’t dive very deep into the one child policy, it still gives enough information to share these girls’ journey and perhaps, the results aren’t so important as the very fact that their one decision brought them each other and gave each other the courage to go get in touch with their roots by simply going back to their homeland and seeing the little bits of what was found.