Double Feature: A Perfect Pairing (2022) & Trust (2021)

A Perfect Pairing (2022)

Director: Stuart McDonald

Cast: Victoria Justice, Adam Demos, Luca Asta Sardelis, Samantha Cain, Craig Horner, Lucy Durack, Antonio Alvarez

It follows a hard-driving LA wine-company executive who travels to an Australian sheep station to land a major client and there she ends up working as a ranch hand and sparking with a rugged local. – IMDB

The latest Netflix romantic comedy released pairs up Afterlife of the Party (review) Victoria Justice and the Sex/Life actor Adam Demos as they meet on a sheep station, one trying to use her hard work to prove her capabilities as a self-starter and win a contract from a wine company executive while also sparking a connection with the “boss cocky” as he teaches her the ins and outs. Suffice to say at this point, romantic comedies are rather rinse and repeat and for the most part with Netflix rom-coms, they haven’t really been too groundbreaking. A Perfect Pairing doesn’t escape the rom-com formula or deliver anything too special. What does give it a fun vibe is that the chemistry between the main leads are pretty good overall and the setting with the beautiful scenery of the Australian countryside.

With most rom-coms nowadays, the selling point is the chemistry that the main leads deliver. In this case, A Perfect Pairing is pretty good. Adam Demos and Victoria Justice do work rather well together in their respective roles and the progression of everything is pretty fun especially when you have a city girl thrust into a foreign rural setting, learning something from the start. The fun isn’t only with them but also the co-workers that she encounters there who go from doubting her to accepting her gradually in their own way. The little bickering and conversations are pretty good since there is a variety of people there. It makes Victoria Justice’s character’s initial goal to bag a deal for her little wine distribution company fall into the background. Like I said, that sort of thing isn’t exactly unseen, in fact its a plot point for many rom-coms for the main female lead to head out to achieve something with extreme measures to eventually realize that its not the point. Only difference here is that hers is very clear right from the start and in this scenario, Adam Demos’ character is the one with a bigger secret to hide (which actually didn’t feel like it was such a big secret overall and the reveal causing such big reactions).

Overall, A Perfect Pairing isn’t anything too special in terms of plot points or execution. However, where it works best is capturing the beautiful Australian vineyards and rural setting, adding in that bit of fun as Victoria Justice’s character gets dirty as a farm hand and the pretty decent chemistry between the two. In reality, Victoria Justice has proven time and time again that she does capture her roles pretty good.

Trust (2021)

Director (and co-writer): Brian DeCubellis

Cast: Victoria Justice, Matthew Daddario, Katherine McNamara, Lucien Laviscount, Ronny Chieng, Lindsey Broad

In this sexy and twisty ride, New York gallery owner Brooke and her husband Owen each face exceptional temptations, with most unexpected results. – IMDB

Trust is an erotic romance drama which is based on Kristen Lazarian, one of the co-screenplay writer’s play Push. I’m always a little skeptical when I start any film that sells itself as an erotic and romantic film. Most of the time, it lacks a lot of those elements and just turns into a really soapy sort of deal. Trust is a rather middling experience. There are some really good execution plot points that help make it feel pretty unique to watch. Its like a semi-Shadowhunters reunion with Katharine McNamara and Matthew Daddorio in bigger roles and then there’s Victoria Justice which I’ve been catching up on a lot of her films, much like the Season 2 of Emily in Paris actor, Lucien Laviscount. While the plot itself does try to seem more clever than it really is, it actually does work through the whole “trust” element in relationships pretty good. The ending is a bit silly but the overall feeling of the film does have a decent use of these two people who are encountered by their own temptations and emotions as they have their own experiences.

Taking a look at the execution, Trust uses a non-linear format to shed light on unveiling the story here from both the main characters Brooke (Victoria Justice) and Owen (Matthew Daddario) side of the story, filling in the pieces as it becomes relevant. Its one of the stand-out elements of this film as it keeps the mystery in place and helps keep up those questionable trust moments but also making the reveals gradually, sometimes being more effective than others. There is no doubt that the film itself takes up a rather soapy drama tone especially when dealing with a relationship square as there are 4 parties involved and the two mains having their own temptation: Owen with a girl at the bar Amy (Katharine McNamara) and Brooke with the artist that she represents Ansgar (Lucien Laviscount).

That leads to the characters themselves. The cast itself is rather small but is pretty sufficient for a story like this one that keeps it rather simple on the surface but when adding in the elements of trust between the characters, it does pull a few nice tricks out of the hat. That has to do with how these characters are portrayed as they develop throughout the film and does add a nice element of how trust should be portrayed and questions the element of trust effectively in its scenarios on both sides. The roles themselves are pretty much on the surface but then the story itself doesn’t really need too much depth since its more about the situation than the characters themselves.

To be fair, Trust isn’t anything to call home about and the ending itself seems a little flimsy. There’s a little play on details about trust and how Brooke and Owen will move forward after this all settles down. Its plays out thinking its more clever than it actually is, however, there is some decent entertainment here. I can’t say that its very romantic or erotic in that regard but there are definitely some moments that work relatively well that regard. For sure, its not a film for everyone and some moments and dialogue even feel a little cringeworthy but somehow, maybe the clever execution or how the story is plotted out that it works for me to a certain extent.

Double Feature: The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) & Knives Out (2020)

The Mitchells Vs. The Machines (2021)

Directors (and co-writers): Michael Rianda & Jeff Rowe

Voice Cast: Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Chrissy Teigen, John Legend, Charlyne Yi

A quirky, dysfunctional family’s road trip is upended when they find themselves in the middle of the robot apocalypse and suddenly become humanity’s unlikeliest last hope. – IMDB

*Originally written for Friday Film Club*

Most known for his work on Gravity Falls as creative director and writer, Mike Rianda’s debut directorial feature film is one that combines his personal family experiences with his childhood love for robots. The Mitchells vs. The Machines, which was once titled Connected but retitled back to its original name upon its shift to a Netflix distribution due to the pandemic, tells the story of the dysfunctional family The Mitchells who are all a bit odd in their own ways who embrace their quirky daughter Katie’s departure to university by going on a family road trip to take her there however, they collide with a robot takeover as the leading tech company PAL Labs loses control over his virtual assistant who ends up exacting revenge by using the newly designed robots to capture all humans. The Mitchells try to escape together and with their odd ideas and surprisingly lucky twists and turns try to save the world together.

The Mitchells vs the Machines is pretty balanced in all its elements. Its comedy is one of the standouts especially since it features a dysfunctional family on a road trip during a robot apocalypse especially when it includes their silly dog Monchi. Driving in an old car and each of them wielding their gifted tool, the Mitchells bond together in the oddest way and yet embraces their oddities while learning about each other a little more. The story never rests on the drama too long and remembers constantly that its a dangerous robot takeover and that they are on the run. The constant moving keeps the film quick-paced and entertaining as it throws in different obstacles, solutions and things going wrong constantly which adds to the entertainment level.

That’s not to mention that the voice cast also is pretty decent. Maya Rudolph voices Linda, the mother character who is a wild ride while Danny McBride voices Rick, the father character. Katie is the main character and the focus of the show as her relationship with her family is the biggest element here along with her knowledge of technology and social media along with her imagination and creativity. She is voiced by Abbi Jacobson. Her younger brother Aaron is voiced by director Mike Rianda himself. The villain is a virtual assistant voiced by Olivia Colman who also captures a nice villain for an animated film which is has this comedic villain sort of feeling, still a little threatening but very entertaining as the whole thing unfolds. The voice cast also includes these cameo characters of a perfect family that Linda envies secretly The Poseys where the parents are voiced by Chrissy Teigen and John Legend.

The Mitchells vs the Machine is a fun little animated film which plays well with its premise. While the story layout itself isn’t completely unique as most comedic family adventures, animated or not, usually include some type of dysfunctional family but the whole film is constructed really well from the voice cast, comedy and pacing while tackling the themes pretty well.

Knives Out (2019)

Director (and writer): Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Riki Lindhome, Edi Patterson

A detective investigates the death of the patriarch of an eccentric, combative family. – IMDB

Inspired by the early murder mystery from Agatha Christie and feeling like bringing to life another character similar to Hercule Poirot, Rian Johnson directs and writes Knives Out, a film that sets itself in a modern world but has the little twist and turns of the classic murder mystery style. Packed with a star-studded cast of great actors and actresses and a wonderful set piece for its main location along with some great cinematography and screenplay, there’s a lot to love about Knives Out. Plus, its a great time to catch up to it seeing as there are two sequels scheduled for Netflix with the first one expected to show up some time in 2022.

While I am personally unfamiliar with Rian Johnson’s work, Knives Out is a brilliant murder mystery. He structures his story in a few acts which moves through the initial setting of what happened which leads to the interrogation which introduces each of the characters and their own statements along with their own truth and lies as they each recount the situation. Everyone is included from the dysfunctional family members who all seem suspicious as they each have their own reasons and conflict. At the same time, it introduces the sleuth hired by an unknown party, Benoit Blanc. The second act focuses a lot around him trying to get more out of those unrelated to the family like the caretaker to get a good idea of what is actually going on. Until the big will announcement turns the tables and the story unfolds further as the schemes, misdirection and twist reveal comes alight. The execution of these events from one to the next is well-measured and keeps it engaging to watch.

Looking at the cast, its quite a packed one: Christopher Plummer as the deceased father and famous mystery author, Jamie Lee Curtis as the eldest daughter and Rian Johnson as her husband and Chris Evans as their son followed by Michael Shannon as the son with his family, his son played by Jaeden Martell (known for his role in IT) and finally, the daughter in law of the second son played by Toni Collette. While all these stars together would seem like quite the crowd, they actually all do their part, no matter how big or small and the spotlight is mostly cast on Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc packed with a Southern accent and the caretaker played by Ana de Armas. There’s also LaKeith Stanfield who is one of the main detectives.

Its hard to talk about these types of murder mysteries without giving away the whodunnit element so lets say that, for a 2+ hours film, this has very good pacing and execution and a lot of it has to be credited to Rian Johnson’s writing. His directing also can’t be dismissed as he starts and ends the film with a very basic item: a quirky mug, giving it a full circle sort of feeling whole also making use of the space especially bringing in the Knives element with the Game of Thrones-esque throne of knives. There’s so much to appreciate and have fun with with this film as a whole.

Double Feature: Time (殺出個黃昏, 2021) & American Girl (美國女孩, 2021)

Time (殺出個黃昏, 2021)

Director: Ricky Ko

Cast: Patrick Tse, Petrina Fung, Suet Lam, Suet-ying Chung, Sam Lee, J.J. Jia, Belinda Yan, Zeno Koo

Once famous for his quick blade, a retired assassin can no longer earn a living with his cut-throat skills. Summoned again, he partners with his chauffeur to carry out special missions – fullfilling the wishes of old people looking to kill themselves. When commissioned by a young girl who has been deserted by her parents and lover, the “Elderly’s Angel” squad finds an arresting way to complete its task. – IMDB

Having missed this one during last year’s Fantasia Festival, its great to see this one creep into Netflix very quietly. Co-written by Ka-Tung Lam and the directorial debut of Ricky Ko (mostly credited with the camerawork for making of and assistant director in other projects prior), Time tells the story of a retired assassin team that now struggles with their own lives as they become elderly: being phased out of work, loneliness, neglect, loss of health, etc. They find new purpose when they use their skills as the Elderly’s Angels performing euthanasia for the lonely and sick elderly. That is until their services are requested by a teenage girl Tsz-Ying who wants to die by all means and slowly gets acquainted with Chau, the lead assassin of the crew now in his 80s.

There is no doubt that Time’s main draw is its stacked cast of main leads who are acting veterans in all regards dating back to their hey-days back in the 60s. Patrick Tse was once the heartthrob of films and a main leading man in Hong Kong TV while Petrina Fung was known as the “Shirley Temple of Hong Kong” in the 60s. It also adds in the consistent supporting man of Suet Lam who seems to find himself in a lot of Hong Kong films in so many different roles and in this one scores himself a main role as the driver for this assassin team. However, this roles takes a much more dramatic turn of events.

Aging is a theme that matches to this leading cast and gives them a platform share their acting skills especially for Patrick Tse who is already in his 80s when filming this one and gives him a chance to reunite briefly with Chow Chung (currently 90 years old) in his cameo role as one of the elderly seeking the help from the Elderly’s Angels. The film executes the topic of aging and the elderly in the form of a dramedy. The drama and the humor does keep a decent balance. The drama is in these three characters lives as they deal with all the struggles that aging has brought for them, at the same, it also reflects bigger societal issues and the modern day values or lack thereof. Between all this, there are some bits that do come across in its dark humor or even a little silly at times that makes for some decent laughs.

Time is not your typical Hong Kong film filled with action and crime. However, this one shows off a wonderful talented cast when the basic Hong Kong acting pool is honestly growing a little thin. The story itself is relevant to the current society towards the elderly (and even dabbles into the topic of teen pregnancy). The film does give it a heartwarming overall feeling as old friends and unlikely acquaintances open up a whole new world for each other as life deals each of these elderly assassins a serious negative dose of aging.

American Girl (2021)

Director (and co-writer): Feng-I Fiona Roan

Cast: Karena Lam, Caitlin Fang, Kaiser Chuang, Audrey Lin, Teng-Hui Huang, Kimi Hsia

During the SARS outbreak of 2003, 13-year-old Fen returns to Taiwan. – IMDB

American Girl is the directorial feature debut for Feng-I Fiona Roan who tells a semi-autobiographical story of Lily Wang, a mother who returns to Taiwan from USA with her two daughters after she is diagnosed with breast cancer. Between adjusting to her life back in Taiwan which proves especially hard for her two daughters especially her eldest with her school work and making friends, the 2003 SARS outbreak also hits causing their alert to be high.

American Girl focuses mostly on the mother Li-li (Karena Lam) and the eldest daughter, Fen (Caitlin Fang) as they navigate through this new life. Li-li struggles with her illness and feeling herself again as she fears the breast cancer getting worse and death causing her to become a rather depressing sort of character which transfers over to her family. Fen in turn doesn’t quite understand all this but despises the negative energy causing her to fight with her mother constantly especially being stuck in Taiwan where its hard to be accepted by friends or the lack of understanding at her school when she falls behind. She also struggles with identity as well when she constantly is referred to as “American Girl”. While both Li-li, Fen or even her father (Kaiser Chuang), they each are flawed characters. Its easy to understand their position but also feel a little frustrated that they each lack the communication to fully portray their feelings properly in this time of adjustment after years of living apart.

The situation feels realistic and the film chooses to set itself during the 2003 SARS outbreak in Asia which is something fairly relatable in our reality. The fear of infection and a mother’s own situation as her own health issues creates a sense of hopelessness when something happens to her younger daughter. There’s a lot of mixed feelings going on but each of these situations and how these characters deal with them help build up these characters and make them realistic. In fact, some of these things are happening as other things are, just like in real life.

Don’t get me wrong though, American Girl isn’t just a depressing slow-burn film. In fact, it is rather heartfelt in many ways. It might not be a film for everyone in terms of pacing or sentiments. There are certain elements that feel like it happens a little late in the story but it does however gives these characters the moment they need to reflect. There’s no big moments in this film and everything is fairly everyday life from conversations at the dining table between the family or arguments in the bedroom or classroom interactions however, it reflects the differences between certain cultures in Taiwan (an East versus West mentality, especially in the school setting) and the film does have some good moments when they do little things together as simple as it all feels.

Love and Leashes (2022)

Love and Leashes (2022)

Director (and writer): Hyeon-jin Park

Cast: Seohyun, Jun-young Lee, EL, Hyun-woo Seo, Han-na Kim, Seoung-kyun An, Suk-hyeong Lee, Bo-ra Kim

Love never hurt so good for two co-workers who enter a contractual relationship as partners in consensual play, pleasure and pain. – IMDB

Based on the webtoon Moral Sense by Gyeoul, Love and Leashes is a new Netflix South Korean romantic comedy that takes its on a journey where an office girl Ji-woo (Seohyun) is approached by her newly transferred colleague, Ji-hoo (Jun-young Lee) when he misunderstands her for being interested in his own tendencies towards dominant-subdominant relationships and BDSM. BDSM has no doubt been a rather hot topic the last few years, probably thanks to the Twilight fanfiction, Fifty Shades of Grey which is some erotic literature (if you haven’t read about it). Its been appearing more in TV series as its central plots and even documentaries talking about Japanese bondage in 2020’s Bound (review).

Love and Leashes takes on a fun approach to the whole subject while building up the relationship between Ji-hoo and Ji-woo as they connect through their 3 month contract for these different plays. For those looking for something steamy, this movie will probably disappoint in that department as their relationship builds up as the film itself almost is like an introduction to the BDSM and DS. It takes that element and contrasts it to the romance itself towards the power dynamics between men and women in the society to this DS relationship versus an actual romantic relationship.

There’s so much to love about Love and Leashes and it has to do with the angle that it takes being so fun. The narrator that talks about all the steps and process of learning as Ji-woo learns about these different elements and intensifies the experience more and more every play has its own sexy moments even if there isn’t actual sex happening. The film strikes a balance of using it to also build up on the two main leads’ connection from their experiences, especially in terms of Ji-hoo and his past relationship and feelings towards how he had to keep his preferences hidden. There’s a deeper exploration of his character in the actual dialogue where Ji-woo’s character development is more in her actions as she gradually becomes more and more comfortable in the dominant role and giving orders where her normal work situation doesn’t allow.

As the story builds, it doesn’t just revolve around them but also adds in supporting characters who either are willing to learn more about this type of relationship but also others who don’t seem to understand it and it delivers both sides of society for their opinions towards it. Basically, the film’s narrative dials it all down to the basics of relationships in terms of “finding someone accepting the person behind the mask”. It all adds a little more substance to the film with their many angles instead of making it into a sexy/steamy angle, which some of their plays because of the music and the cinematography actual does achieve that.

The foundation of the film for this being a first time experience for both is what makes it rather fun to watch both from the level of surprise and comfort that they both achieve in the process which creates a nice chemistry between them, even through the little accidents and the build-up to accepting this whole contract. The two main leads Ji-woo and Ji-hoo played respectively by Seohyun and Jun-young Lee also fit the roles pretty nicely and adds a good chemistry between them, making the most of the romantic connection that gradually builds between them but also having some fun comedic moments, mostly in the first act when the story sets up for this special contractual relationship. Feel-good and fun: Love and Leashes is really quite entertaining as a romantic comedy.

Double Feature: The Hustle (2019) & Falling For Figaro (2020)

The Hustle (2019)

Director: Chris Addison

Cast: Anna Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Alex Sharp, Ingrid Olivier, Nicholas Woodeson

Two con women – one low rent and the other high class – team up to take down the men who have wronged them. – IMDB

Taking a little break from teem comedies, its time to take a look at an actual comedy about con artists which is a female-centered remake of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels which is a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story. I haven’t seen either of the films that The Hustle is based on. The Hustle is a tad odd and probably will be divisive on how you feel about these two actresses as they team up and face off as con artists. The film primarily circles around them and they play off each other to create the comedy. The contrast of the character’s personality and style being the main driving force of the comedy itself as they fight for the Beaumont-sur-mer turf in a wager for conning a tech guy’s $500K.

Anne Hathway and Rebel Wilson are a little hard to peg down their style. While Anne Hathaway has a lot of different films under her belt, she always seems to fall into comedy quite a bit. And in more recent films of hers that I have seen, she plays a lot with accents (The Witches (review) being the most recent example). They aren’t particularly bad accents and actually it is rather fun since it works well with these cons that her character is doing especially while Rebel Wilson’s Penny is convinced that she is the renowned international con artist, Medusa. Rebel Wilson plays into her style of comedy right from her days from Pitch Perfect (or even earlier in the smaller role in Bridesmaids) and she has come into her own but her comedy style is not exactly for everyone as it does go a little over the top and exaggerated. There is no doubt that Rebel Wilson has her own silly charm. In the contrast of things in this film, it works alright.

Call it a form of buddy film if you will because this does have that sort of feeling to it as these two work together and eventually adapt each other’s con strategies to play against the other. They do have a decent dynamic here even if some of the comedy might not always land right. The Hustle all comes to a twist sort of ending and the setting is absolutely beautiful. Its not a phenomenal comedy but it is pretty fun overall.

Falling For Figaro (2020)

Director: Ben Lewin

Cast: Danielle MacDonald, Shazad Latif, Joanna Lumley, Gary Lewis, Hugh Skinner, Rebecca Benson, Christina Bennington

A brilliant young fund manager leaves her unfulfilling job and long-term boyfriend to chase her lifelong dream of becoming an opera singer in the Scottish Highlands. – IMDB

*Originally posted on Friday Film Club*

As Valentine’s approaches, Netflix is bringing on a lot of different romantic comedies for their release schedule. There’s no doubt that when you look at Danielle MacDonald, her filmography has been rather diverse. Looking at some of her leading roles, she’s been truly wrapped up in trying to be something to break out of what others view her as from wanting to be a rap star in Patti Cake$, to breaking the norm of a pageant queen in Dumplin’ and her latest film right here as Millie who is striving to be an opera singer despite starting later than most would and giving up her own money-making successful career and being apart from her boyfriend for a year to pursue this dream with a harsh opera teacher Meghan (Joanna Lumley) and her only student Max (Hugh Skinner) who is reluctant about her presence as they both try to enter and win the upcoming opera singing competition. However, her presence brings on a journey that doesn’t only discover her talent for opera but also sparks the necessary change for Max to get in touch with his emotions.

Romantic comedies nowadays are really a challenge to truly enjoy especially as a lot of them are formulaic. Falling For Figaro still has a lot of those romantic comedy tropes but also has that comedy element that does deliver rather well as it features a cast of supporting characters and main characters that are colorful to watch in both dialogue and interactions. Not to mention that Danielle MacDonald does tend to connect herself to feel-good films. This one has a few awkward moments especially with her boyfriend character (Shazad Latif) that seems to be an odd presence but the film also focuses on the natural progression of the feelings for Max as they start to train together and despite his reluctance still tries to help her with some of the skills and understanding. The training bits with Meghan also have some comedy and adds to the whole film pulling away from the romance part to not focus too much on it. Its how the film overall strikes a decent balance between the training and the romance that makes it feel pretty fun to watch overall.

Perhaps calling Falling for Figaro a romantic comedy is stretching it a little since the romance is rather subtle and minimal overall. Its spaced out rather well and focuses more on the musical training element. Danielle MacDonald, Joanne Lumley and Hugh Skinner do make the film very fun to watch their entire dynamic both as mentors, friends and potential romance. Of course, the snarky inn owner (Gary Lewis) also adds to the comedy adding to the whole small-town charm much like the setting itself.

Double Feature: The F**k-It List (2020) & The Girl Next Door (2004)

The F**ck-It List (2020)

Director (and co-writer): Michael Duggan

Cast: Eli Brown, Madison Iseman, Marcus Scribner, Karan Brar, Tristan Lake Leabu, Jerry O’Connell, Satya Bhabha, Andrew Bachelor

After a prank blows up on a high school senior’s life, he shares a list of certain things he wishes he’d done differently. – IMDB

As we go through an array of teen films in the past month, I’ve come to the realization that a lot of the plot is pretty similar, mostly surrounding really academic-focused teens realizing that they should have done more upon reaching graduation. The F**k-It List takes it on the other side of the gender scope as we dive into a teenage boy and his friends endeavors when a prank literally does blow up his life which sends him into a spiral which blows him up on a social media level when he talks about his F**k-It List, which is pretty much a list of things he would’ve done but never did. This strong message inspires many to share their own lists and do some of the things, some good and some bad, of course. In many ways, the plot of the film is a good direction since it gives others courage to achieve those things they weren’t able to before but at the same time, the film takes the approach of making this specific teen’s journey a tad whiny and shallow at times. His journey does end on a rather positive note but the process of it feels really irresponsible, which probably was intentional as it was somewhat his way of “acting out” and adding in that coming of age element. The key of the whole plot being finding the balance in life between work and play.

The F**k-It List in all its glory is a bit meh. There are some decent feel-good moments. The soundtrack itself for a teen film is rather decent. The journey itself is a little been there done that but still makes for a good angle. The execution is where it feels a little boring at times. There’s a decent amount of time floating on a pool and pondering and some of the conversation feels a little tip-toeing around some issues that probably are usually talked about more openly. The world of teen films does revolve a lot around young female characters and their coming of age journey in a quick retrospective (or maybe its just me since those seem to hit higher popularity or on my radar more frequently) so this was a decent angle to approach especially watching what would happen to someone who has his life planned out optimally suddenly be hit with something that shatters everything.

The issue with The F**k-It List is essentially the main character himself. Its not really the actor Eli Brown’s issue since he seems to fit the role well enough but perhaps how his character is scripted. It felt like he transitioned into this when his plans went down rather quickly. There’s still conflict but it lacks something to the whole character development. He does play opposite Madison Iseman who seems to be popping up on my watchlist quite a bit the past month. Her character has a lot more conflict and offers another perspective to this whole “f**k-it list* concept.

The Girl Next Door (2004)

Director: Luke Greenfield

Cast: Emile Hirsch, Elisha Cuthbert, Christopher Rodriguez Marquette, Paul Dano, Timothy Olymphant, James Remar

A teenager’s dreams come true when a former porn star moves in next door and they fall in love. – IMDB

Its kind of surprising how long its taken for me to get around to watching The Girl Next Door mostly because upon the release of this film back in 2004, it was the talk among my high school crew as Elisha Cuthbert was also an alumni. Of course, she’s a few years older than myself so not really certain of who she is or what she did (or maybe I just don’t remember a conversation from almost 2 decades ago). But here we are! I finally got around to watching it! The Girl Next Door is pretty fun overall since the whole story has it fun parts of dating an ex-porn star and learning about reality and expectations. Nothing like a high school student having to rethink everything for love, right?

Looking at the overall cast, Elisha Cuthbert plays well into her role as Danielle, an ex-porn star that is house-sitting while trying to run away from her past and trying to start anew before it comes chasing her down. The running away does make for an encounter with her neighbor’s son Matthew (Emile Hirsch) who takes a peek at her changing from his bedroom window and eventually having a friendship and eventual romance. She breaks him out of his studious shell and pushes him to try more daring things in his high school life which he wasn’t able to do being scared of the consequences of his actions. Talking about that, the film does a really great job by creating those made-up moments play through in his head of the worst case scenario much like having best buddies who also are very much like him, one of them played by a young Paul Dano, who is extremely awkward. The film does shift its tone when the danger of Danielle’s past comes finding her in the form of a porn director played by Timothy Olymphant, taking the group to Las Vegas for an adventure. The

The execution of the film works really well also. The building of the relationship between Danielle and Matthew is played out well. The whole shift in tone to add danger to the situation also propels the film in another direction. There is a certain amount of absurdity to some of the scenes but it does add a decent humor to the whole film. Whether its creating the scene where Matthew imagines a lot of things or the crazy adventure that these boys probably would never do if they had it their own way, the film manages to be pretty fun in general. It all culminates to the final scene where they are trying create what seems like a porn video in school on prom night and trying to avoid the eyes of the principal and staff when things definitely take a fun twist for the big final reveal that actually is quite clever as it gives a nod back to something mentioned at the beginning.

Double Feature: Dude (2018) & Every Day (2018)

Dude (2018)

Director (and co-writer): Olivia Milch

Cast: Lucy Hale, Kathryn Prescott, Alexandra Shipp, Awkwafina, Alex Wolff, Brooke Smith, Jerry MacKinnon, Satya Bhabha

A group of teenage girlfriends deal with their impending graduation from high school. – IMDB

Dealing with high school seems like a central focus of coming of age stories as the next step in life triggers change and insecurities. Dude focuses strongly on its group of four girl friends as they face loss right before their final year. As they each have their own worries, they all individually make their own decisions even if it isn’t always in agreement with their group. Between getting ready for graduation, getting high together and planning out their next step for college, their last 2 weeks before graduation is one filled with both comedic and dramatic moments.

Girl friends stories are always quite endearing to watch. These four friends each have their own unique personality. Two of the girls are specifically focused with Lucy Hale’s Lily and Kathryn Prescott’s Chloe who share the same loss at the beginning which makes each of them cope in their different ways. The film does a good job at building their friendship where they go to events/parties/school together but gradually all have their own experiences which change each of them, giving them their individuality as well. Lily has her encounters which takes her aback while Chloe chooses to pivot her plans to be closer to home. All these things highlighting the process of moving on to the stage and accepting change and separation. In comparison, Alexandra Shipp’s Amelia and Awkwafina’s Rebecca both have rather one goal oriented, giving them a much simpler role but still they add some fun scenes.

Overall, Dude is a fairly basic coming of age teen comedy/drama. The issues they face are fairly relevant and believable and the characters are decent. If anything, the characters do make the film rather enjoyable. Plus, you even get to enjoy a verse or two from Awkwafina rapping. The writers remember that the film is about teenagers so there is a good balance between drama and fun.

Every Day (2018)

Director: Michael Sucsy

Cast: Angourie Rice, Justice Smith, Debby Ryan, Jeni Ross, Owen Teague, Lucas Jade Zumann, Katie Douglas, Jacob Batalon, Sean Jones, Nicole Law, Maria Bello

A shy teenager falls for a spirit who wakes up in the body of a different person every morning. – IMDB

Adapted from the young adult novel of the same name by David Levithan, Every Day stands out from its unique premise where a person “A” migrates through different bodies everyday of the same age. Despite this, they still find a girl Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) who is willing to love them for who they are, putting aside gender and appearances. The story itself feels relevant to today more than anything and tells a story about acceptance and love.

Every Day builds on this premise. The film’s focus in love and acceptance is due to this person’s personality or soul and their connection. Another side of this premise highlights all the different person exist within one community from homeschoolers to extremely religious student. While the story itself seems a little ahead of times for teenagers especially talking about romance in connections and such, the message here is pretty good. The whole body migrating mostly remain a mystery as they never quite figure out what it is however, there seems to be some control as they soon discover which also brings up the question of how unfair it is to take over someone’s life and make them lose out. The whole mystery of the situation also does lead to some unclear moments where A embodies the person but still manages to have their skills. Something that isn’t explored quite enough perhaps but then this is a teen romance drama and not some sci-fi or fantasy film.

The film itself works pretty well as the young cast delivers some good performances. The main constant being the female lead played by Angourie Rice as she faces this person and starts to accept him. Angourie Rice does a great job with the role at hand especially when faced with this odd person who morphs everyday. The conflict, the acceptance, the heartache is all well developed and portrayed by her. The cast which A migrates includes a handful of characters which have more screen time with Justice Smith, Owen Teague, and Lucas Jade Zumann. To be fair, the film itself does a decent job but while I haven’t read the source material, the premise itself has a lot to do with the intrigue. The execution is fairly well where credit is due but there are still parts that feel a tad disjointed.

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.

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.