Double Feature: Monster Hunter (2020) & The Witches (2020)

Welcome to the next double feature! Its been a while since we’ve done one of these! This time, I’m going to talk about two movie rentals that I’ve watch lately of 2020 movies. The first is Monster Hunter, a 2020’s video game adaptation directed by Paul W. S. Anderson and the second is The Witches a 2020’s Roald Dahl adaptation of a novel of the same name. Thinking about these two movies, I feel like they do pair up well as its two directors with films that really fall in line with the style of films that they are known for. Let’s check it out!

Monster Hunter (2020)

Director (and writer): Paul W.S. Anderson

Cast: Milla Jovovich, Tony Jaa, Ron Perlman, T.I., Diego Boneta, Meagan Good, Josh Helman, Jin Au-Yeung, Hirona Yamazaki

When Lt. Artemis and her loyal soldiers are transported to a new world, they engage in a desperate battle for survival against enormous enemies with incredible powers. Feature film based on the video game by Capcom. – IMDB

At this point, whether for better or worse, Paul W.S. Anderson is known for his video game adaptations. Of course, mostly everyone remembers Resident Evil series in particular. He has however done a few other ones and never shies away from adapting video games that he loves but Anderson is much more than Resident Evil and has shown that he has his own directorial style and trademarks. How do I know? Well..an entire season of Movies and Tea Podcast as a retrospective on his work would do it. How about that, eh? A shameless plug for another project where you can check out HERE. With that said, being relatively supportive of Anderson’s work despite his shortcomings and being absolutely unfamiliar with Monster Hunter games in general, I decided to give Monster Hunter a shot and if you are familiar with Anderson’s work, it pretty much will be fairly enjoyable.

Starting with some positives as a complete newbie to this world. Monster Hunter does create a wonderful visual element for this dangerous world that the soldiers end up where every surface has its own monsters hidden from plain sight. Being a creature feature fan, monsters are pretty much a fun element of any movie when well-designed. That makes this world building and creature design all the more engaging to be watching especially with the bird’s eye view shots that Anderson is especially known for and being able to showcase architecture really well which definitely comes into play here with the surroundings. Being fans of Milla Jovovich and Ron Perlman, this was also quite the treat. Plus, a few other supporting characters which were fairly smaller characters. However, the character developed on all fronts were pretty thin overall.

With that said, the shortcomings of the film are fairly more apparent. From the action standpoint, a lot of the fighting choreography cuts away quite a lot so its not too engaging to watch. As mentioned before, the main plot is pretty thin. That does have to do maybe with the whole open world game that it adapts itself from so the story is straightforward but feels somewhat bland, which leads to my previous point about the characters also being poorly written as well.

With that said, the film is pretty below average. As a one time watch and turn off your brain sort of video game adaptation, its still fairly enjoyable since I do enjoy the world building in movies and visually, the world is shown so very nice. However, in substance, its rather lacking overall. The one takeaway I did have from this is that I’d really like to try out a Monster Hunter game soon.

The Witches (2020)

Director (and screenplay co-writer): Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock, Jahzir Bruno, Brian Bovell, Josette Simon

A young boy and his grandmother have a run-in with a coven of witches and their leader. – IMDB

I’ve read some Roald Dahl when I was younger and while I feel like I’ve read The Witches, I can’t exactly be sure so we’re going into this pretty much saying that I haven’t read the novel or have seen the first adaptation back in the 90s. Robert Zemeckis is a great director to be adapting a film like The Witches. The story itself and the fantasy elements all make some wonderful fun but with a little darker twist. Plus, the CGI work here is on point which of course can all be expected with past directorial works by Robert Zemeckis.

The Witches is a really cool story about witches versus humans to a certain extent. Well, its more about the witches despise towards children and wanting to execute a huge plot to change them all into rodents. Why rodents? Because they are hated by humans as well and probably will be killed anyways. At least that’s my interpretation from the whole thing. When a grandmother and his grandson tries to run away to a hotel to get away from the witch they believe are bothering them, they end up realizing they are staying in the exact location of a disguised witch coven meeting. When the grandson gets caught, he gets turned into a mouse along with another English kid and then realizes his pet mouse is also one of the witches’ victims. All three of them with the help of their grandma try to stop this plot. The story is so fun to play out especially as every element is done so well especially with the design of the witch as their masked human appearances get reveal to their true form and that’s where the CGI comes into play to make the appearance a tad creepy but still having some silly moments to keep it in line as a family film (or at least I think its a family film. Correct me if I’m wrong in the comments, okay?)

A lot of what makes this movie is fun is the cast. The Witch Leader is played by Anne Hathaway which is pretty fun overall as she captures the character in an entertaining way. It does feel like she loses the accent in some parts of the dialogue but overall, she carries it well enough. The grandmother is played by Octavia Spencer who is one of my favorite actresses ever since seeing her in The Help and then every role she does is just so amazing, no matter what it is. The film overall is narrated by Chris Rock as the older version of the grandson as he recounts the story of his encounter with the witches. Stanley Tucci appears also in supporting role but personally, I love seeing him appear in random roles in so many movies. He is such an underrated actor especially with the diversity of roles he has portrayed over the years. The kids are pretty good as well but the core of their role is in voice acting when they get turned into mice and the whole thing is pretty exciting with a little bit of tension.

The Witches is a fun little family children romp. Its not for very young children, I’d think as the witches are pretty creepy in appearance even if some of it for adults might come off as being silly. The film is done pretty well and has its exciting bits and the CGI is done so well that its pretty cool overall.

Fear Street: Part Three -1666 (2021)

Fear Street: Part Three – 1666 (2021)

Director (and co-writer): Leigh Janiak

Cast: Kiana Madeira, Ashley Zukerman, Gillian Jacobs, Olivia Scott Welch, Elizabeth Scopel, Benjamin Flores Jr., Julia Rehwald, Matthew Zuk, Fred Hechinger, Michael Chandler, McCabe Slye

The origins of Sarah Fier’s curse are finally revealed as history comes full circle on a night that changes the lives of Shadysiders forever. IMDB

Picking up right after Part Two, Part Three takes a turn as it changes its tone and style from the slasher genre (at least the first part) into a more slow-paced 17th century superstitious supernatural setting. In some ways, it takes a similar approach to films like The Witch where it plays a lot on its characters and the sudden bad omens that bestow what used to be Shadyside. This last part of the trilogy takes it back to the beginning and origin of how this Sarah Fier curse all started before heading into Part 2 of 1994 as its big finale as the current day situation tries to be solved. Part Three is structured to build up the big reveal of what this curse is all about and how it started and then the big finale so it really does complete a full circle of events. The contrast between the first half set in 1666 and the second half where its the continuation of the Part One in 1994 is very apparent but also what makes this one rather intriguing as well.

Looking at the 1666 origin story, Part Three takes a rather different route in both tone and atmosphere and it has to do with the setting in time. That’s of course a given. Plus, in contrast with the previous two parts, it does take a turn. The soundtrack also changes to something more of an orchestral soundtrack with more classical sounding music to match the times. The dialogue also shifts over while the story switches to a small town mentality towards the suspicions of witchcraft causing the town to be cursed because Sarah Fier does things against the religious teachings.

There’s some familiar character structures even for these types of films and they are introduced using the familiar faces from the previous parts and even perhaps how characters in their past lives are very similar to how they are in their other lives. Its a pretty nice character building in that level to be able to callback to these characters in their different times. Stories that start off more slow paced and reserve do usually boost up very well in its peak of events and reveal as this comes to a nice twist of who is cause of this Sarah Fier curse and giving clues to Deena who had been embodied in Sarah Fier in 1666 to figure out a way to end all this.

What makes the 1666 stand out is how its paired up with the 1994 continuation which brings to a very fun and fast-paced finale as not only the characters come together, giving Gillian Jacobs grown-up Ziggy from Part Two more screen time, but also a visual contrast dialing back to a neon color palette from its earthy tons in the past setting while also using its setting from Part Two and Part Three to all link back together from all the knowledge from travelling through to 1978 and 1666 and then finally bringing that back to 1994 as its big finale where all the elements piece everything back together.

Fear Street Part Three is a definite treat. The first part set in 1666 might not land as well for some due to its setting and the general tone those horror movies tend to have. Plus, the horror is still mostly not there except for the gore levels. However, the story does make up for a lot of this in its story and style to make it a lot of fun. Part Three brings it to a satisfying high point for its finale which is executed really well.

As a final thought on Fear Street trilogy event as a whole, it does work together really well. Plus, expanding a story into three weeks is also a good idea. Its almost like watching a TV series or mini-series but this one, each film wraps itself up well enough but still manages to leave some room for intrigue for the next film. If anything, Fear Street demonstrated the diversity of Leigh Janiak as a horror director as she moves through various styles of horror films but builds up the atmosphere to match up each element and keeps pretty well-rounded whether its as a teen Scream homage or a summer camp slasher or a old-time supernatural. The three films do piece together really well and it all dials down to execution and the events moving backwards to reveal its beginning in order to get to its end. Hopefully this is a start to Netflix building more stories around this sort of film event.

Fear Street: Part Two – 1978 (2021)

Fear Street: Part Two – 1978 (2021)

Director (and co-writer): Leigh Janiak

Cast: Sadie Sink, Emily Rudd, Ryan Simpkins, McCabe Slye, Gillian Jacobs, Matthew Zuk, Kiana Madeira, Benjamin Flores Jr., Olivia Scott Welsh, Brandon Spink, Chiara Aurelia, Ted Sutherland

Shadyside, 1978. School’s out for summer and the activities at Camp Nightwing are about to begin. But when another Shadysider is possessed with the urge to kill, the fun in the sun becomes a gruesome fight for survival. – IMDB

Fear Street Part Two continues the first part as they seek out the one person who survived the 1978 Camp Nightwing situation. As she recounts the situation, the story plays out throughout the film following the Berman sisters, Ziggy and Cindy who are at summer camp and Cindy’s boyfriend Tommy ends up being possessed. Paying homage to movies like Friday the 13th, summer camp slashers are always a little campy and yet after the foundation building from Part One, Part Two steps it up a little. There’s more gore and the kills are done rather well, with some moments leaving the aftermath than the actual deed. There is a little more of a hunt and the areas range more as the Sarah Fier possession side (aka what I call the lore) dives deeper as the sisters learn quite a bit about it. They explore some nooks and cranny areas that really have quite the horror film aesthetic. The atmosphere and settings does give space for a little more tension to build up perhaps some anticipated fear even though, overall the film isn’t scary either but its a lot more heart pumping fun than the previous with more chase scenes and plays more like how you’d expect a summer camp massacre to play out.

Looking at Part Two, a lot of its credit goes into its characters. For one, how the 1994 ones who survived the Camp Nightwing situation was back in 1978 and gives their characters a background and development. On the other hand, the Berman sisters are shown with enough character development from the start to the finish that they make you want to cheer for them especially as they start off being such opposite characters. While their backstory isn’t a lot, its also not exactly necessary. Plus, it doesn’t sit around trying to hash out problems, they are more about the action. Their actions prove that while they differ in opinions on certain things and the changes that Cindy made that has also thrown Ziggy off, when push comes to the shove and the dangers appear, they are trying their best to get each other out of the mess even if it means making sacrifices for each other. A lot of the credit has to go to the female actresses Sadie Sink and Emily Rudd, who plays respectively Ziggy and Cindy. Part Two builds up a lot of the other characters, perhaps the most notable being the backstory of Nick Goode (as he is in Part One) and in part also how the Nightwing killer comes to be how he appears in 1994.

For the most part, Part Two is a pretty solid slasher but in reality, its a lot more than that. It dives further into the Sarah Fier story and from what we’ve seen, its playing out as an evil spirit and possession sort of story. The cuts between the two sisters explores those two dangers completely and they each piece together a different side of the puzzle. This one also takes a step further and adds more killers to the equation from the ones seen in the first part which is always fun. Part Two essentially sets the stage for Part Three so that when it ends in the 1994 continuation, they are able to put together the missing pieces from Part One and hopefully break this Shadyside curse and save whoever needs to be saved. Talking about 1994, I really do love seeing Gillian Jacobs even if this role is fairly little in this part.

Overall, Part Two is pretty much what you would expect from watching a trilogy going backward in events to piece things together as Part One is the end result and we get to see the progression of events that leads to it. Of course, that might also lead to some predictable moments and knowing the result of things might make it less intriguing to watch but Part Two does such a good job in execution that it isn’t really an issue here for the most part. Of course (for those that didn’t see the Part One review), I haven’t read the source material so maybe its less of a surprise of those who are more knowledgeable of the story. While the tone of the film doesn’t seem to change too much from the first to the second, it does focus much heavier on the violent slasher side and turns it up plus, the new decade setting also means the soundtrack changes to fun 70s music which also works well with its scenes. Part Two is definitely a fun one and a decent step up from its previous part.

Fear Street: Part One – 1994 (2021)

Fear Street: Part One – 1994 (2021)

Director: Leigh Janiak

Cast: Kiana Madeira, Olivia Scott Welch, Benjamin Flores Jr., Julia Rehwald, Fred Hechinger, Ashley Zukerman, Maya Hawke, David W. Thompson

A circle of teenage friends accidentally encounter the ancient evil responsible for a series of brutal murders that have plagued their town for over 300 years. Welcome to Shadyside. – IMDB

Based on teenage book series by R.L. Stine, Fear Street is adapted as a film trilogy to be released over 3 weeks. The first one is set in the story in 1994 and oddly the trilogy goes backwards to part 2 in 1978 and part 2 in 1666. At first glance, it looks like a unique way to approach story telling and execution especially as its about diving into a lore looming over this town for centuries. While I do love Goosebumps, I have never read the source material or any of the Fear Street novels so this review is solely based on the film.

As the first film of a trilogy, 1994 sets the stage for the present scenario of how Shadyside is towards this evil presence and what brings it to life and whether it is possible to break out of the curse and how as the film follows the teens as they discover with a little trial and error. In the process it refers back to 1978 and 1666 which are the next two films in the trilogy, giving it both a link but also leaving anticipation for the mystery ahead. In some ways, it feels a little backwards and yet, it might work. Being a R.L. Stine adaptation though, it has a more horror comedy feeling to it and even for the killer itself feels almost like a parody or a homage. I’m not sure which its meant to be. With that said, the film isn’t too scary but has decent amount of blood considering it is a slasher film. The film score is full of 90s music which not only matches to the setting but also is a great fit for the different scenes.

The cinematography also deserves a mention. All the settings that the teens move through are great. The opening scene sets the tone and style of the film immediately using both the setting, the lighting and colors to create suspense and tension. The film moves through a good few locations from shopping mall to the school to outdoor areas. It moves rather quickly through its scene keeping it quick-paced and engaging.

However, Fear Street 1994 has some issues as well. Well, I guess one of the bigger problems might be the acting. There’s nothing wrong with the whole teen thing and in reality, playing teens gives a lot of forgiveness for saying weird and awkward stuff or even saying and doing things that don’t logically make sense. But, I do offer a lot of lenience personally on silly decisions in teen-focused films especially slasher.

Overall, Fear Street Part One is a decent start. If anything, it lays out the intrigue for the horror/mystery on hand, whatever you want to call it. However, for hardcore horror fans, I feel like the scary elements a little low but there is some gore. Plus, the setting and atmosphere is done really well along with the fantastic soundtrack, it really boosts the film up in enjoyability. As an ending thought, while I don’t have anything bad to say about it for the most part and I do look forward to the next part. I can’t help but feel like the film is a slightly forgettable in plot as it feels very familiar like a mesh of a few other popular things around (maybe that’s why it feels like a homage or parody either/or…I don’t watch enough parody to be able to tell).

Double Feature: Little Big Women (2020) & Lost Girls and Love Hotels (2020)

Next double feature is here! I went ahead to check out two 2020 movies. The first is Netflix Taiwanese family drama Little Big Women followed with a drama thriller adapted from a book, Lost Girls & Love Hotels.

Let’s check it out!

Little Big Women (2020)

Director (and co-writer): Joseph Chen-Chieh Hsu

Cast: Shu-Fang Chen, Ying-Hsuan Hsieh, Vivian Hsu, Ke-Fang Sun, Buffy Chen, Ning Ding, Han Chang

Family members grapple with the passing of their estranged father and the remnants of the life he led during his absence. – IMDB

Based on the 2017 short film, Little Big Women tells the family picking up the pieces after the estranged father leaves as his life story gets brought back to life through their memories. Through the conversations of the family and the memories of his wife, what drove the man away slowly gets revealed by the end which causes family separation between other family members and why other members seem to have harsh judgement towards them. The father’s estrangement also causes a different change in each of his daughters as they also embrace their own life whether its married with a child or being single or hiding away secrets. Also, as the mother’s motives seem to be the most supported by her granddaughter. This Taiwanese family drama reminded me at the beginning a little of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman. Its quiet and slow-paced as the characters slowly reveal who they are and the roots of their issues with both their father and their mother. Being a quiet film, its not about a lot of fancy things and dials it all back down to the narrative itself. Death even with the most estranged people will bring about about personal and social issues: reflection, letting go of the past and of course, how society views the traditions of the whole ordeal.

Little Big Women isn’t too different from other family dramas outside from the emphasis on perhaps showing some of the culture in Taiwan regarding death whether its choosing the religion and what ritual to use or how the family structure changes. Sometimes, its the smallest things and yet, the significance is big to how others perceive it or even on a personal level. In this film, there’s a lot of narrative the evolves around the three daughters but at the same time, the mother has a lot also as she is the one that one of the daughters is trying to convince to fulfill her father’s wish and let the father’s girlfriend attend. The whole process of accepting her and making peace between the two actually comes to a very well-executed segment near the end that has probably one of the best scenes especially since the process throughout the film as she tries to find this lady lets her learn quite a bit about her through other people’s interpretation which makes the final talk so well-deserved.

At the same time, the daughters also have a big emphasis here. Each of them having their own moments and struggles. Its been a while since I’ve seen Vivian Hsu, who undoubtedly is probably one of the bigger names here (and I could be wrong as I’ve broken off of Taiwanese movies for quite a while) as she started her career fairly young (and made me want to rewatch 1997’s We’re No Bad Guys). There’s some pretty touching sequences between them especially when the father being estranged has different effects on them as their knowledge of their family changes with the different siblings. Family events are truly where all the family secrets come out and that is shown really well here as well.

Overall, Little Big Women is a family drama. Its nothing groundbreaking or shocking about the whole film. The narrative does build up these characters as they face the death of their estranged father and the process of preparing his funeral. The family secrets, the struggles, self-reflection, letting go: all these themes pop up in this film and as quiet as this film is, it does manage to pack quite the emotional punch by the end.

Lost Girls and Love Hotels (2020)

Director: William Olsson

Cast: Alexandra Daddario, Takehiro Hira, Carice van Houten, Andrew Rothney, Misuzu Kanno, Kate Easton

Haunted by her past, an English teacher explores love and dust with a dashing yakuza gangster in Tokyo. – IMDB

Adapted from the book of the same name and having the author also be the screenplay writer for Lost Girls & Love Hotels, this story almost feels a little like Lost in Translation except a little edgier and hardcore. Being an adaptation and one that I haven’t read the original source material, it feels like there’s a few things that seem to make its appearance that may have been overlooked when putting together this story. However, seeing that the author of the novel also acts as the screenplay writer here, it perhaps holds a good part of the essence of what is key to her story or at least we can only assume that. With that said, while the story execution feels at times a little disjointed as it hops from one scene to the next and some of it feeling like it loses its purpose a little for certain side characters like her friends, the cinematography is done really well. Capturing Japan on one hand while mostly capturing the sensual shots really well especially when talking about the lighting used in every scene that adds to the overall visuals and ambiance to elevate the passion between the two characters.

Lost Girls and Love Hotels is focused primarily on the journey of Margaret, played by Alexandra Daddario as she seems live a rather messy life as she starts off being a girl that seems to not quite seem to fit in her role in her day job and then seems to be falling in a sexcapade life at night full of boozy times at bars with her friends and hooking with men at love hotels. While not too familiar with Daddario filmography, it definitely feels like one of the more dramatic roles as her character is trying to escape from something on her mind and settling with being alone hence her trip to Japan. This film is where she is “reborn” as she meets this Yakuza gangster where she embraces her feelings for him while having an element of forbidden love. In some ways, what feels lacking here is the portrayal of Margaret’s desire of BDSM being her turn-on which could be where the thriller element of the story would appear however, its not shown nearly enough to make it have that effect that would inevitably lead to a very obvious foreshadowing at the beginning. Due to the lack of the character building for her as well except for some hints of what she is running away from, her character feels less authentic in some ways. The closest that she feels is the scene above when she starts talking about being alone.

While not exactly groundbreaking character building for her or her love interest Kazu, played by Takehiro Hira, the scenes of them together does have okay chemistry, although it might be the cinematography and sex scene choreography that is done really well. Kazu’s body-long tattoo covering the backside of his body creates a really nice visual overall. Not to mention that Takehiro Hira does stand out in this film as he has a more quiet character that has a lot more mystery plus he has a rather charming sort of look. A lot of it is hidden between the lines through conversations or observation from Margaret. Its a little sad since these characters lack a little more depth in their portrayal in this adaptation. It makes me wonder whether the novel would have fleshed them out more than just their relationship and having a more hollow personality especially for Kazu whose dialogue seems to hold some depth which does eventually enlighten Margaret not before one decision pushes her into a downward slope of bad consequences.

Lost Girls and Love Hotels is a decent watch overall. It helps that its the type of movie that I generally enjoy where its a piece of someone’s life where there’s some type of self-discovery plus it adds in that whole passionate romance which always works for myself when done well. However, this film does lack character depth and perhaps some more thriller-esque moments as currently, it definitely feels more like a romance drama. Not exactly the same thing, right?

TV Binge: Detention (返校, 2020)

Detention (返校, 2020)

Director: I-Hsuan Su, Shiang-an Chuang, Yi Liu

Cast: Lingwei Li, Ning Han, Guanzhi Huang, Jack Yao, Teng-hung Hsia, David hao, Guanxu Luo, Kunda Wu, Serena Fang, Carol Cheng, Han Chang, Jui-hsueh Tsai, Chih-chien Lin

A tormented student uncovers unsettling secrets at her remote high school as betrayal and a paranormal encounter upend her life. – IMDB

Based on the 2017 point and click horror game of the same name developed by Taiwanese game developers as their debut game, Detention has gone on to a horror movie adaptation in 2019 (review) and followed last year with the release of their Netflix series based on the game but having a different story arc moving into the 90s and using the backdrop of the original source material to create a psychological horror drama.

Running at 8 episodes, Detention is an interesting blend as it starts off in the psychological horror territory and gradually retracts into a more drama-focused direction as the characters come into place while bringing in a sort of time loop element in its finale. Perhaps the best area that this could be considered is more of a gothic drama as nothing is going to really scare you a lot save for a few moments perhaps the opening episode having the most horror-esque scene. It does have a lot of themes revolving more touchy subjects with suicide and mental illness being a big one.

This adaptation, while taking its own liberation in the 90s, still manages to weave in the key plot points of the source material. That being said, the two girls whether its the ghost girl from the 70s, Rui Xin who wants some kind of revenge and is using her pendant to occupy a girl with her own unknown agenda and luring them in by fulfilling their wishes and then pushing them a certain extent versus this latest new to town girl, Yun Xiang with her mental illness and broken family actually draws a strong parallel between the two characters that gradually form the two characters and their dependency and connection as well. The two are probably the more intriguing characters as both the past and the present runs its own course. The focus on the present makes it interesting to see a lot of taboo situations happen whether with messing with spirits or the student-teacher relationship or even the warped values of Greenwood high School.

Other than the two female leads, there are some pretty good characters here and some situations that truly do make for some ethics and morals to come into play. The more villainous type of characters definitely do an impressive job. In reality, the story even has this weird focus of making these men into pretty much horrible people overall from the selfish principal to the controlling Inspector Bai down to the new teacher, Shen Hua. Even the neglectful father of Yun Xiang is pretty much a very unlikeable sort of character. They all do such a great job at making you mostly despise their actions overall. Putting the villains aside, there is one character of note and that is Yun Xiang’s schoolmate Wen Liang who may be pegged as a bad student in school but in reality is one of the more down to earth and genuine character in the whole scenario and truly looking out for Yun Xiang while also being a link to the spirit world and a character linked to the past scenario.

Playing with themes of revenge, school troubles, mental illness, student/teacher relationship, its brings in a lot of different elements that come into play through the 8 episodes. While the pacing isn’t exactly speedy, it still feels well-paced enough to keep things moving constantly and revealing the story gradually. The last 3 episodes add in a really good element that gives the series a nice twist that manages to pull the past and present situation together that definitely adds to the whole end game. Overall, an impressive little Taiwanese series that involves the supernatural but also shows the bad side of some people.

TV Binge: Julie and the Phantoms (Season 1, 2020)

Julie and the Phantoms (Season 1, 2020)

Creators: Dan Cross & David Hoge

Cast: Madison Reyes, Charlie Gillespie, Owen Joyner, Jeremy Shada, Jadah Marie, Sacha Carlson, Savannah Lee May, Carlos Ponce, Booboo Stewart, Sonny Bustamante, Cheyenne Jackson

Julie is a teenage girl who finds her passion for music and life with the help of a high -concept band of teen boys (The Phantoms) who have been dead for 25 years. Julie, in turn, helps them become the band they were never able to be. – IMDB

Based on the Brazilian TV series Julie e os Fantasmas, Julie and the Phantoms is a musical comedy drama that tells the story of a girl who is able to make 3 teenage ghosts that died 25 years ago visible to everyone whenever they play music together and hence brought about the their band, Julie and the Phantoms. Running at 9 episodes, there’s a lot to love about Julie and the Phantoms whether from the teenage content or the ghost element and especially the musical and band elements. There’s a little bit of romance, family and friendship and talks about loss and dreams and finding the courage to face it all. All in all, Julie and the Phantoms might have some plot points that seem a tad far-fetched but overall, its feel-good element really lands on such positive notes making it quite a binge-worthy experience.

Looking at the young cast, they are all fairly new to acting. With a lot of musical sort of shows or movies, it has a little overacting element however, the band when with each other feels mostly like the characters do fit themselves. The main actress is Madison Reyes who plays Julie, a girl trying to embrace music again after her mother’s passing. Trying to balance being okay for her family and  having the courage to follow her dreams with the help of the band, Madison Reyes does a really good job capturing the role and also showing her musical talents of singing. Playing opposite her are the 3 ghost boys from the Sunset Curve: Luke (Charlie Gillespie), Alex (Owen Joyner) and Reggie (Jeremy Shada),who have personalities that balance each other which makes each of them stand out and each having their own issues although this season was mostly focused on Luke and building up the chemistry he has with Julie. An overall success for the two as they have some great moments together which is not physical but just through looks and conversation.

The story and the narrative does a good layout for the first season. It gives a good foundation and lays out the scene for both the key characters of Julie and her high school scene along with her family and also, gives a look at the ghost side of things and how this world’s ghosts work (which takes a twist at the finale and gives a set up for the second season). In terms of the songs, every episode has at least one musical offering which aligns with the plot and mostly is fun and positive sort of songs especially with its lyrics. They each have their own fun and are pretty catchy overall.

Overall, Julie and the Phantoms for the first season is a fun show. As a teen show, its pretty good. There are some issues probably in terms of over the top acting in certain parts but its feel-good elements and the fun and catchy songs does cover over a lot of its flaws. It does help that I’m a big fan of these types of shows plus its well-paced and the episodes are relatively short so the first season is definitely a breeze to binge. Definitely one that comes highly recommended for myself (seeing as I’ve rewatched the season a few times at this point since its launch and enjoy it equally as much every time) especially for fans of teen shows and musicals. With that said, I can’t wait for the second season whenever it will be released.

Moxie (2021)

Moxie (2021)

Director: Amy Poehler

Cast: Hadley Robinson, Lauren Tsai, Alycia Pascual-Pena, Nico Hiraga, Sabrina Haskett, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sydney Park, Anjelika Washington, Amy Poehler, Ike Barinholtz, Marcia Gay Harden

Fed up with the sexist and toxic status quo at her high school, a shy 16-year-old finds inspiration from her mother’s rebellious past and anonymously publishes a zine that sparks a school-wide, coming-of-rage revolution. – IMDB

Adapted from the 2015 novel of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu (which I’ve never read), Moxie is a story about a group of high school girls finding their voice to speak up for the double standards faced with girls, making this a rather type of coming of age story. Its not focused particularly on love but much like other stories, its finding themselves but having the courage to also own up to their own choices, making not too different from other coming of age story in terms of execution however in its theme, it does speak clear on various real issues that girls may face in high school or as they are growing up and even has a reveal on an issue in the film that reminded me of the 2015 documentary called The Hunting Ground.

Female empowerment and the inequality that is present in many places is something that definitely needs to be addressed. In this case, empowering younger girls to speak up about their discomforts is a good place to start as they could be viewed as preys to bigger issues in the future, probably one of the strongest conversations from the film between main lead Vivian (Hadley Robinson) and Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) as they discuss how to fit into the school by avoiding and laying low and accepting the status quo but the latter feels like there shouldn’t be a need to hide herself and just be who she is without being bothered. As a standpoint of the issue it wants to show, Moxie definitely picks a good topic and even showing it through girls teaming up to stand up for what is right and against the status quo. It all makes for some good moments in the film.

When looking at the characters though, at times it feels like there are issues of character development and possibly something that seems to affect the whole execution. Yet again, I haven’t read the source material so its all based on the movie as its own story and not an adaptation. For one, the character of Vivian, while has the right motives and a decent character development also creates some mixed feelings especially near the end when there’s a turning point which causes her character to have a certain “volcano eruption” moment. In some ways, it fits the age of her character and probably the inner struggles she has with the whole situation and just finding the courage to stand up and possibly talking before thinking. However, there’s something about her character that I haven’t quite pinpoint that seems to be a little off for myself. It might also be that the story itself feels like the flow of events is a little odd. There are some good and effective moments and even manages to gather in the different sides from different girls and their backgrounds and what holds them back. Every girl has their own story.

The movie also highlights the school environment rather well, whether its the uncomfortable teachers in face of the sensitive topic or the principal who is afraid to make certain situations too big that it affects the school reputation. This leads certain jock students to think that they can do whatever they want including making others feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps one of the things that makes this feel very close to reality is the ranking of girls or categorizing them which suitably is the catalyst of the situation. There is some props that need to be given to Patrick Schwarzenegger who does deliver a very convincing role as the “bad guy” and perfectly dislikeable.

Overall, Moxie is a good coming of age story. What works here is definitely the issue it wants to highlight and the message that it delivers. There are some issues of execution affecting a bit of the character and pacing however, the whole girl rebellion is one that definitely is worthy a watch as some of these issues in high school may carry on to bigger things and deserves to be seen. If anything, this movie has made me want to give the source material a read to see how it is similar or different.

To All The Boys: Always and Forever (2021)

You can check out the review of the first 2 movies of this trilogy below:

To All The Boys I’ve Love Before
To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You

To All The Boys: Always and Forever (2021)

Director: Michael Fimognari

Cast: Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Janel Parrish, Anna Cathcart, Ross Butler, Madeleine Arthur, Emilija Baranac, Trezzo Mahoro, Sarayu Blue, John Corbett, Henry Thomas

Continuing the romantic life of the teenage girl and facing her good and hard times with her friends and family. – IMDB

As we reach the last movie of the To All The Boys trilogy on Netflix, this is based on the third book of the trilogy of the same name. The third book is focused around Lara Jean but this time, unlike the first one where its about facing up to her feelings despite making herself vulnerable or the second book that its about choosing between two guys, this one is dials back to her as she struggles with choosing between a college that she wants to go to and the guy that she loves, worrying about the future of what might happen if she chooses one love over the other or a more suitable future over her love life, despite having to face up to changing plans and the consequences related to it. The story itself centering back to the basics of family, her future and her love life.

While its not a complete change back to its first film and lacks somewhat of the same type of charm, Always and Forever is a definite step up from the second film. However, that’s not to say that this one has some issues as well as it has a feeling piecing together montages a lot and jumping from one sequence to the next rather quickly creating a little sense of disjointedness. Where this film does carry back its fun elements is bringing back more screen time for the three sisters and the relationship they have while each also having their own sense of settling with a new situation to come with their father remarrying. There is no doubt that a big part of what works for this trilogy is the family element especially when the other sisters are charming characters along with their father.

For Lara Jean, the center back to her and her friends along with the idea of how to go for the future she wants in terms of college and think a little more about making the decision suitable for her comes into play. Of course, To All The Boys is also about Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship and there is a decent balance of it here as well especially as they each face their own insecurities about a future that might involve them being apart from each other and finding the courage and confidence to face those problems together. In some ways, for Lara Jean, its a lot about how she decides to be true to what she wants and for Peter to be able to support her choices even if it means taking a harder route for them.

To All The Boys: Always and Forever also packs in a really nice soundtrack that definitely matches with everything. There is a use of romantic comedy references which is pretty fun as well as the concept of Peter and Lara Jean’s meet-cute. The script here fills in those pieces of what hasn’t been talked about in previous two books while also tying in Lara Jean’s love for romantic comedies that makes it feel like it fits well. It also brings back a snippet of the first film’s use of having her talking to an imagined version of Peter Kavinsky as she struggles to tell him the truth behind something was misinterpreted. With that said, the charming characters of Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky as their own characters and as a couple is still one of the highlights of the film, which also makes perhaps some small little details feel very touching to watch, especially the near ending scene that is probably one of my faves and gives a nice feeling of the series coming full circle.

Overall, To All The Boys: Always and Forever is a pretty good sequel. Its a nice way to wrap up the trilogy and manages to bring everything back to a nice feeling from the first film. It addresses all the characters in Lara Jean’s circle for the most part and sees a progress throughout the time being in school and how they’ve also changed as well or made amends in other cases. Its about growing up and these characters definitely feel like they have. Its a satisfying ending and a great way to wrap up the trilogy.

The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity (晴雅集, 2020)

The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity (晴雅集, 2020)

Director (and writer): Jingming Guo

Cast: Mark Chao, Allen Deng, Olivia Wang, Duo Wang, Jessie Li, Kaicheng Xu, Chenjun Sun, Kurt Huang, Jusper

Qing Ming, the Yin-Yang Master, took his master’s last wish and went to the Captial Tiandu City to attend the heaven ceremony. – IMDB

Adapted from novel series Onmyoji written by Baku Yumemakura, The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity is a 2020 Chinese fantasy film acquired last year by Netflix before its theatrical release starring some well-known main leads Allen Deng (2018 popular drama Ashes of Love) and Mark Chao (2017 popular drama Eternal Love) and directed and written by Edward Guo, an author, director and screenwriter whose work has been adapted frequently especially his Tiny Times movie series.

Seeing as the IMDB summary is a bit vague, here’s a synopsis: The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity tells the story of Qing Ming (Mark Chao), a disciple of Zhongxing which has been put in charge of representing their sect as one of the Four Guardians to attend the ceremony to seal the Evil Serpent from breaking out of its vessel along with 3 other masters from other sects. Its here that he meets one of the other masters, Bo Ya (Allen Deng) who views the slaying of demons differently and gets off on the wrong foot. When one of the Guardians dies mysteriously before the ceremony, Princess Chang Ping (Olivia Wang) assigns a new master He Shouyue (Duo Wang) to replace him in order for the plans to carry on. As Qing Ming and Bo Ya both investigate the murder, they come to realize that there’s a much bigger plan underway that might lead to someone trying to release the Evil Serpent.

Chinese fantasy films and TV is a fairly popular genre in general. The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity is executed pretty well. Its runtime is a tad long at over 2 hours and it feels like some parts are stretched a little long but the story does have a decent complexity to carry it. Its not exactly novel in its realm and some parts are fairly predictable however, the character development and building up the foundation for these two main characters, Qing Ming and Bo Ya is done well. The movie itself has great production value especially with the cinematography which is great whether in the contrast and saturation, mood and atmosphere of each scene or the score and even the costumes. However, what deserves recognition definitely is in some well done computer effects for the monster design and movements.

While the director gets criticized a lot for his directing style, I actually quite like his style and how he films (especially after watching variety show Everybody Stand By 2) plus the story he tells has definitely grown from the beginning and he does have a lot of details in his writing and execution. There’s a definite growth from the earlier works that were adapted to this adapted screenplay of The Yin-Yang Master. Aside from that, the cast here is really great. Mark Chao and Allen Deng work really well in their respective roles. I do feel that Mark Chao’s characters are rather similar from the ones I’ve seen before while I do like Allen Deng’s Bo Ya a lot more especially with this costumes and character design whether its his weapons and such. Much like the characters specifically for this instalment like Olivia Wang and Dou Wang (who takes on two roles here). The whole concept of Spriti Guardians and their appearances especially for the design of Kaicheng Xu’s Kuang Hua Shi and the other two at the end with the characters of Killing Stone (Chenjun Sun) and Snow Dog (Jasper).

The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity was a pleasant surprise to say the very least. With a decent cast and a fairly decent twist plus some great demon/creature designs, the story packs in a lot of fantasy mixed with mystery and action. Plus, the new thing especially after the success of The Untamed definitely is adapting movies with two male leads. For this one, these two are equally good actors plus for fans of Allen Deng from Ashes of Love, its a good throwback of him in CGI wings again. Chinese fantasy films might not be for everyone but if you do like to try out something new, this one is a decent one to check out and just got released on Netflix, which is always a plus.