Double Feature: Come To Daddy (2019) & Secrets In The Hot Spring (2018)

Its been a while since we’ve done a double feature but we’re back! Movie watching has really taken a big hit this year somehow (in comparison to previous years..at least with the first few months). This time’s pair-up is a horror comedy double as I look at 2019’s Come To Daddy and 2018’s Taiwanese film Secrets In The Hot Spring.

Let’s check it out!

Come To Daddy (2019)

Director: Ant Timpson

Cast: Elijah Wood, Stephen McHattie, Garfield Wilson, Madeleine Sami, Martin Donovan, Michael Smiley

A man in his thirties travels to a remote cabin to reconnect with his estranged father. – IMDB

Suffice to say that in recent years, Elijah Wood has been getting involved in some interesting independent horror films especially with his company SpectreVision that has also put out some awesome horror films (psychedelic for the most part). Its hard to not be intrigued by anything that has his name attached to it. Come To Daddy was one that I avoided during the festival circuit because it would be accessible and no doubt, Come To Daddy is another intriguing one. The tone and pacing is a little odd at times with the first half being landing a lot better than the second half but always playing with some horror and slipping in some comedy breaks in between. The second half definitely seems like it loses a little steam after the “twist” is revealed which causes quite the change in atmosphere.

The cast and performances here are really great. Elijah Wood is fitting in this role Norval as a man in his thirties which has been with some privilege that ends up trying to get some kind of resolution from his estranged father who is not a very appealing person played incredibly well by Stephen McHattie. The dynamic and dialogue between these two characters creates this very entertaining and unsettling sort of atmosphere. Not to mention the whole character design of Elijah Wood’s character The side characters also have some weird moments and have little character reference points whether its a cop who believes that criminals have a certain type of eyes for example. However, there isn’t a big cast here so its not hard to follow.

To be fair, its hard to really talk about this too much without giving the twist away as that lays out a lot of the purpose of the film and the reason of why his estranged father reaches out to him years later, a question that the character also asks as a pivoting point despite everything that happens surrounding him. There are some minor illogical moments as well. Overall, its a fun little movie which was both odd and intriguing

Secrets in the Hot Spring (2018)

Director (and writer): Kuan-Hui Lin

Cast: Ting-hu Zhang, Sing Hom, He-Hsuan Lin, Mimi Chu, Kar-Ying Law, Chin Chi, Kai-Wei Chiu, Shu-yao Kuo

Three youngsters meet by accident at a mysterious hot springs hotel. There, they fall into an unforgettable adventure. It starts off scary but soon turns funny when they have to try and save a family. – IMDB

Secrets in the Hot Spring probably isn’t going to stand-out to anyone as they browse the horror or comedy or international films section however it is something of a fun little hidden gem. Diving into a part horror and part comedy balance for the most part, this Taiwanese film is downright silly and yet fittingly so. Of course, I must yet again reiterate that comedy is very suggestive and I feel like this type of humor might not be for everyone. The best way to probably determine for familiar Asian film viewers is the type of humor that Hong Kong veteran actor & actress, Kar-Ying Law and Mimi Chu brings as they are part of this film as the grandparents running the hot springs hotel. They really pull together the film with their performance. The three youngsters are played by less familiar faces (at least to myself as the current scene of Taiwanese actors in the recent decade is one that I have yet to dive into). The contrast in each of the youngster’s characters also balance out the their performances whether in dialogue or reaction. It’s pretty good choice in casting.

Perhaps what makes Secrets in the Hot Spring fun is that its conscious about how silly it is and embraces it using both horror tropes and some ridiculous reactions from the characters to make it work on many levels and be just a very simple entertainment. However the writing is fairly clever as it uses its horror and comedy blend to create the twist as well. There are some little jump scare moments but overall, its not a very scary experience so hardcore horror fans might be disappointed. What also adds to the simplicity is the small cast of 5 (or maybe 7) characters and a good use of the hot spring hotel setting as it uses the location really well bringing together the past for the main youngster character who is meant to be the future heir and slowly reveals his past and his reluctance. The big finale is a little cheesy but then its arguable that the story itself not taking itself seriously being the tone actually works together in general.

Another one where the twist is one that is well-executed and makes it rather fun and elevates itself from a bit of the Asian film melodrama. There is no doubt a little considering it has a portion of the family back story shared here. In some ways, I can’t say that this movie is particularly sophisticated but it sure was a fun time making it a little hard to evaluate whether its a good movie but it is an entertaining one that’s not completely mindless but the humor also is more physical and interaction between the characters than in its dialogue which doesn’t have as many translation issues also. Overall, Secrets in the Hot Spring is a fun film. Hardcore horror isn’t really a forte in Taiwanese films (in my limited experience) so its nice that they approach it with humor.

TV Binge: Use For My Talent (我亲爱的小洁癖, 2021)

Use For My Talent (我亲爱的小洁癖, 2021)

Director: Cong Cai

Cast: Yue Shen, Jasper Liu, Yunfan Dai, Charles Lin, Yanan, Mengdi Su, Sirui Huang, Quan Tan, Ran Xiao

Because of his incomplete family, Gu Ren Qi has a closed up personality and mysophobia. Shuang Jiao used to have a happy family, but later lost her mother in a car accident, and became a slovenly person. The two became acquainted when Shuang Jiao becomes an employee in Gu Ren Qi’s cleaning company. The two became closer as they get to know each other. Under each other’s influence, they began to heal from their wounds. – MyDramaList

Watch on: Mango TV (Youtube & App) & Netflix

Use For My Talent is a Chinese adpatation of 2018 Korean series Clean With Passion For Now. Let’s just get this out of the way right now that I’m not a big fan of Korean series so I usually don’t go and watch them so I haven’t seen the original of this series. However, Use For My Talent landing on Netflix was such a treat although it does have Shen Yue who is on another Netflix series, Meteor Garden (a Mainland China modernized remake of the 2001 Taiwanese series both directed by the same director Angie Chai) and Jasper Liu in Taiwanese Netflix series Triad Princess and Korean/Taiwanese collaborated variety/travel show Twogether (review). These two main cast members are no doubt talented in their own regards and great to see them together especially as Jasper Liu seems to have moved his focus into Mainland Chinese series now and making a more frequent appearance.

Running at 24 episodes (my favorite length for these types of romantic comedy-drama series), Use For My Talent is a fun one to watch. There’s a good balance of humor, drama and romance that blends together to create this one. It does get a little peculiar in parts but the characters are done pretty well. Not only the main couple, Ren Qi and Shuang Jiao is fun to watch but the two other supporting/secondary couples are also very fun to watch and each having their own dynamic which gives a good variety. Plus, it takes time to look at mysophobia that Ren Qi has and dives into that angle to give it its own drama moments but also using it as some parts of humor especially when encountered with his polar opposite Shuang Jiao who opens up his eyes to slowly accepting the world and treatment to be able to get closer to her. I’m sure some of this stuff is either exaggerated or simplified for the drama’s purpose but it does expose an element of this phobia which leads to using the cleaning company while having a focus on how technology can’t necessarily replace the human element of some services.

Having touched on it a little before, the characters here are absolutely a treat. The main leads played by Shen Yue and Jasper Liu are really great. Shen Yue is probably one of my top favorite young actresses in the last few years as most of her series and roles have been both fun and believeable especially as she gradually moves into TV series set outside of the school setting. I’ve seen most of her shows (even if I never got around to the review). She has this natural and down to earth essence to her that makes her really believable in her roles and carries the emotions really well. The same applies for Use For My Talent where she plays as Shuang Jiao and the character is pretty decent. Funny how things turn around as this show adapts from a Korean series and earlier this year, Korea adapted a Chinese series that was her debut role in A Love So Beautiful (review). On the other hand, as popular as Jasper Liu is, I haven’t seen him outside of two variety shows but there’s something about him that is very charming and he does have pretty good acting skills as well. The chemistry between the two worked really well and came off fairly natural even by the end when he would do the very sappy/cringy sweet talk. It was hard to not cringe but also secretly like it just a little especially as it was a nod to a conversation from a prior part of the series.

Of course the series isn’t just about them but also has some colorful characters. Another couple is RenQi’s assistant DongXian who is very slow and unromantic but ends up with a popular lifestyle streamer QianQian. They are a little fun to watch especially since DongXian’s character is rather hilarious overall but has a little bit of a sad backstory (like a lot of the main cast). Aside from them is ShuangJiao’s little brother JunJie who ends up chasing up her sister’s best friend Yan who has their own sweet moments. The process for both of these having a similar dynamic but pretty funny and entertaining. No series is complete without some sort of love triangle and that brings in Yunfan Dai’s character Lu Xian, a psychiatrist that recently returned to China for 2 purposes: one to repay a debt that ShuangJiao’s mom offered him at a young age (which leads him to falling for her) and the second to act as the consultant for RenQi’s phobia and hopefully control and cure him to a certain extent. His character is pretty decent as well. In most Chinese series, family is also a big part and here the two leads family can be considered opposites of each other and on one side very comedic in dynamic and on the other side, very strict and maybe a little intentionally frustrating.

If there was something to nitpick a little, it definitely would be regarding the choice of melodrama that they used to break the two apart which is an inevitable part of these series but how is always where it works or doesn’t. What they used is always a frustrating choice although props to the two leads for being able to create some genuine sad feelings for this break-up.

Overall, Use For My Talent is an absolute treat. In terms of pacing, comedy and romance, everything works really well. The ending is a little odd with the whole melodrama but thanks to well-connected characters, despite the situation set up, they still manage to carry through the heartwrenching breakup feeling between the two. Its a rather impressive one which highlights some of the talent in the Chinese market.

With all that said, next mission…catch up on Jasper Liu’s series. Anyone have suggestions from the Netflix available ones? Please let me know.

TV Binge: Love Scenery (良辰美景好时光, 2021)

Love Scenery (良辰美景好时光, 2021)

Director: Zoe Qin
Cast: Lulu Xu, Yi Lin, Bing Hu, Harry Hu, Danni Zhong, Yuwei Jiang, Ting Wang, Cheng Wang, Rong Wang, Zheng Zhong

Liang Chen is devoted to bringing good music works to the listeners, expressing the idea of being kind, real, and perfect. Lu Jing loves computer and big data research. He is highly recognized in the academic field through studying complicated human behavior and psychology, thus influencing the classmates around by his solid specialty literacy. They are strangers first but then brought together by big data and they become closer in the journey of pursuing dreams. – MyDramaList

Watch on: iQiyi

Love Scenery is a Chinese romance drama that rolls in very familiar territory. In the recent while, Chinese dramas have had two hot topics for story telling or adaptations: romances involving women older than their guy love interest and marriage before love/contractual marriage. Love Scenery falls in the former one where in reality the cast itself also has this age gap so it makes it all the more believable. Running at 31 episodes, the series does take a turn somewhere in the last 10 episodes or so that almost feels like its a bit forced and gets a little boring to watch, almost feeling like the characters become empty.

Looking at pacing and plot, Love Scenery starts off pretty strong with a popular female singer Liang Chen (Lulu Xu) and smart and handsome university student Lu Jing (Yi Lin) who is also a popular game streamer called Herman as his idolization of her ended up using one of her songs as for people who would lose the game and causing her to be invited to a streaming showcase. Because of this, she asks for help from her friend and unpopular actor Ruibin (Harry Hu) who gets fed up with her lacking gamer skills and refers her to Lu Jing, both hiding under their gaming profiles. The whole part of jumping in game and their interactions at the beginning leading to a lot of comedic and embarrassing moments are all pretty fun to watch. The game scenarios are brought to life and adding in how they figure out who each other are and then realizing the feelings for each other is a good progress. The bad gamer versus good gamer with their different priorities and silly situations all have a lot of comedic value and makes it a lot of fun. Plus these parts have a lot of action as they play a first person shooter so there’s a lot of fighting and gunfights and such which definitely adds to it. Even after they both individually figured out who each other are but trying to test or dodge the situation (depending on the character) has its fun moments.

Where the series starts falling apart has to do with the story progression and how the characters don’t seem to fall a little flat over after the whole romance happens or at least the acknowledgement that they do like each other with not only the age element but as a result, the celebrity and university student influence in the eyes of the public. There’s a lot of frustrating moments once that happens that makes the situation really drag on at parts. Not to mention that while the settings of romantic moments are done well, the two main characters chemistry are a little lacking for the most part. It might have to do with some of the acting is not too good especially when you consider that Yi Lin is a rather young actor and this role while somewhat fitting in some parts and draws some opposites from a previous series, Put Your Head On My Shoulder (review) which was his debut, this one had a lot more drama and it seems that capturing drama still feels like it falls a little short in terms of how he emotes. When he is doing the happy and youthful things, he captures that well but he lacks deeper emotions in general especially if he lacks chemistry with Lulu Xu. Its not saying that nothing lands as some of the scenes are designed to capture them well and builds up the atmosphere well enough.

On the contrary, in terms of romance, the secondary leads between Ruibin (Harry Hu) and a lonely actress Shanshan Ma (Danni Zhong) is a lot more fun especially as the chase is one that lasts the whole way and her character has a lot to discover in terms why she is the way that she is and gradually opens up. The two are a lot more enjoyable as there’s a lot of silliness going on especially for the character of Ruibin, who always does the wrong things or timing with good intentions especially in his chase for Shanshan.

Of course, the story is more than just romance. Its also about chasing your dreams. For the university student bits, its about moving forward as he goes through university, joining competitions. The focus isn’t really there as its more on Liang Chen as she tries to change her style from the romantic ballad style singer to taking a chance and switching to being a rock singer and going back to her roots despite the challenges and risks of it all. These parts are decent since the soundtrack is pretty good. Although, once things start slowing down in the last bits, the challenges seem to be a little rinse and repeat and nothing extremely exciting.

Overall, Love Scenery started out really strong and eventually fell short the further it went along as the pacing, story and characters starting feeling a little emptier the further that it went along. The main issue probably being that 31 episodes was a few episodes too many for the story that it wanted to tell and sometimes it hit the melodrama moments a little too hard. If it had kept up with the beginning half’s pacing and tone, the series would have been a lot of fun. In a nutshell, not bad but not great.

TV Binge: Love Death & Robots (Volume 2, 2021)

Love Death & Robots (Volume 2, 2021)

Creator: Tim Miller

A collection of animated short stories that span various genres including science fiction, fantasy, horror and comedy. – IMDB

The first season of Love Death and Robots (podcast discussion) was an absolute treat with its 18 episodes or so and having a variety of different short films that explores the three themes: Love, Death and Robots. Thinking back to it now, there are still many segments that are memorable. In comparison, the second season is much shorter running at a swift 8 episodes with some stories feeling more familiar however, the animation style has shifted to some refined visuals that for some almost look real and also, some unique animation art style. The stories itself also has overlapping themes in some in some interesting settings.

Anthology volumes are always going to have hit and miss. The good news is that the second volume of Love Death & Robots is overall pretty good with some segments landing better than others but nothing that is lackluster. Looking at more specific segments, the art style and story of a few do stand out like the horror creature feature of The Tall Grass which had painting-like illustrations or Ice with its world building and comic book/graphic novel illustration style that brings in creative designs and a outer space setting with normal humans being in a world of modded humans. There’s also a Christmas short All Through The House which has its characters almost like dolls while playing with who Santa is and leaving it with a rather troubling question.

In terms of overall stories that seem to be a great basis for a bigger scale movie to some kind of full-length feature, some of these definitely have the basis and foundation for it. Coincidentally, these also have some good voice cast behind it and some more renowned names. The first, of course is for Pop Squad which sets up a future where humans have traded the rights to have children for living forever and being young forever also where having children is now a crime and when found, said children will be killed in order to maintain the population balance. Its a well-structured story with a lot more to explore especially when its voice cast includes Nolan North and Elodie Young. Much like Snow in the Desert which also has a barren wasteland setting and manages to blend all three themes of this volume together.

Two other ones well worth mentioning is the starting episode and the final one which both contrast from the rest of the series in tone. The first called Automated Customer Service carries in a different setting of a futuristic senior residence where a cleaning robot goes rogue and packed with a comedic element mocking the future of automated customer service. Its one that sets an upbeat yet sinister tone but is rather entertaining overall and pretty fun. The final episode, The Drowned Giant is a slow-paced one that leaves room for reflection on humanity in general as it circles around the discovery and gradual deterioration of a drowned giant washed ashore with a monologue from the scientist that observes it over time. Its one that might not fit the general one of the entire volume but does end with a more meaningful and thought-provoking point.

Overall, the second volume/season of Love Death and Robots is a pretty good one. Most of them are well worth a watch and each have their own value whether from visuals and art style to storytelling and world building. It is a short season but one that is still bingeworthy.

Army of the Dead (2021)

Army of the Dead (2021)

Director (and writer): Zack Snyder

Cast: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Matthias Schweighofer, Nora Arnezeder, Garret Dillahunt, Tig Notaro, Raul Castillo, Theo Rossi, Hiroyuki Sanada

Following a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, a group of mercenaries take the ultimate gamble, venturing into the quarantine zone to pull off the greatest heist ever attempted. – IMDB

After years of making DC Universe movies and a multitude of genres in film, both good and bad in my opinion, Zack Snyder’s latest offering held some high anticipation as he goes back to his roots as his directorial debut 2004’s Dawn of the Dead (review) was a highlight in his filmography. Running at 2 hours and 28 minutes, Army of the Dead is a long zombie movie. It has a few angles to the film as a heist film and zombie film. It packs in action instead of scares. In some ways, the best comparison at the beginning section would be comparing it to the Train to Busan sequel Peninsula (review) however, the films takes a rather different trajectory past gathering a team to pick up goods in a zombie infested land. What deserves a mention is that Snyder takes on not only the director’s seat but also wrote the story and also is the cinematographer. With that said, Army of the Dead’s biggest issue, among a few other issues, is mostly pacing-related, which is expected with the runtime. Some other issues are related to sequence of events that are fairly familiar and doesn’t offer enough uniqueness to make it stand out more.

Army of the Dead does have some good points. There are some individual elements that do work. The first is the introduction of the zombie tiger design which shows up a few times as a threat and also giving mention to a famous Las Vegas reference relating to Seigfried and Roy’s tigers. Both the design and the story of the tiger does add to the story especially as it mostly acts as an additional threat that paces through the outside areas whenever the team needs to go there. Along the lines of visuals, Snyder does offer some good cinematography. The best ones coming from the overhead shots of Las Vegas as the camera pans through the area from above. The wide shots create a good atmosphere of the wasteland that Las Vegas has become and the area that the team needs to trek and survive through. Aside from that, the most satisfying part of the film is the opening 20 minutes or so when the scenario is set by how the zombie is released and where its from and how the city gets infected and followed through right away with a montage of the key characters during the apocalypse and how they help create the blocked off city that they currently reside in before hitting things off to where the characters are and they job that they are being offered. With that said, a big part of the opening sequence is the soundtrack which carries throughout the film as a good cue on creating somewhat of a comedic break here and there.

With that said, Army of the Dead is the most engaging in its first 30 minutes as everything gets set into place with both the characters and the zombie apocalypse. However, once the heist mission starts, things start slowing down in pacing quite a bit. The story jumps between the heist and the smart zombie lore. These two portions have both its pros and cons. In terms of the heist, it does have some action and as with a wide array of characters making up this somewhat ragtag team, it creates both comedy and hidden agendas, most of which are fairly predictable and outlined fairly early on what’s to happen. However, the safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer), helicopter pilot Peters (Tig Notaro) and former mercenary Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) are probably the main highlights of the story as they add whether in humor or awkward moments. While these are exactly the main character as Dave Bautista is the main person, there are just so many characters that sometimes his character, adding into the drama with his daughter and the other members all seem to lose the charm or depth. On the other hand, the smart zombie lore isn’t exactly unseen as the Living Dead series also features smart zombies and the angle they take here with the alpha and queen is a decent angle and yet, it seems to lose its direction very quickly as it turns more into a revenge hunt down which loses the depth into expanding on that side of the lore, even the “twist” was fairly easy to figure out from one of the earlier scenes.

Overall, Army of the Dead is a fairly lackluster film. The pacing does it in a lot where the length doesn’t add to the story but does more harm. It becomes a tiring sort of watch that doesn’t seem to give enough to create the foundation of building up both the world or the zombies or even the characters. It seems harsh but the best part of the movie was the first 30 minutes which probably created disappointment when it becomes a realization that the tone shifts from that opening sequence drastically once the heist actually starts. With that said, I do have a love/hate relationship with Snyder’s films where a few of his early films work for me while his newer films have had the same issues of pacing and plot. Army of the Dead falls in line as Snyder’s director trademarks are very apparent here and done well and yet, the sum of those parts aren’t enough to make up for the rest of it.

Double Feature: My Beautiful Broken Brain (2014) & Why Did You Kill Me? (2021)

Welcome to the next documentary double feature! Documentaries are definitely a little more frequently showing up here as I’ve been interested in checking out more of these especially the ones related to crimes and such. The first is 2014’s The Beautiful Broken Brain is not crime-related but a personal journey and the second is this year’s Why Did You Kill Me about a family’s journey to hunt down the killer of their family member after her death in a drive-by shooting.

Let’s check it out!

My Beautiful Broken Brain (2014)

Director: Sophie Robinson & Lotje Sodderland

MY BEAUTIFUL BROKEN BRAIN is 34 year old Lotje Sodderland’s personal voyage into the complexity, fragility and wonder of her own brain following a life changing hemorrhagic stroke. Regaining consciousness to an alien world – Lotje was thrown into a new existence of distorted reality where words held no meaning and where her sensory perception had changed beyond recognition. This a story of pioneering scientific research to see if her brain might recover – with outcomes that no one could have predicted. It is a film about hope, transformation and the limitless power of the human mind. – IMDB

Documentaries like My Beautiful Broken Brain is not usually my go to however, the premise of this documentary is quite fascinating to watch as it shows the sudden changes that can happen in terms of health to anyone and how her journey is different as she has to embrace a changed world and her path of recovery. For a documentary about a girl who loses quite a bit due to the hemorrhagic stroke, its actually executed in a fairly positive way and sends out a positive message about how we should view our own life whether its about hope or not taking things for granted.

The execution of the film is done a good portion with videos filmed by Lotje Sodderland which builds up on her personal journey through her own recovery from her own feelings and the different steps she takes in order to embrace this “distorted reality”. Its truly hard to imagine what she went through especially when the most basic abilities are striped away through on incident. The execution builds from the start of how Sodderland ends up the way she is described from herself and her family and the reality that she now faces, outlining the effects the stroke had on her brain. As she moves forward, she compares her world to David Lynch’s work and hence her will to document what has happened to her and the journey of her recovery to eventually meet him. In the world of medicine and science, there isn’t really a lot of guarantees especially facing anything with the brain and perhaps that’s the takeaway here as this is a never seen before (or at least rarely seen) especially hard to watch when it gets into the neurological experiment bit.

In some ways, My Beautiful Broken Brain reminded me in premise of 2005’s Japanese TV series 1 Litre of Tears that was based on the true story of Aya Kito who suffered a rare brain degenerative disease and had documented it in her own diary. Where that one brings forth a lot of sorrow, My Beautiful Broken Brain has a lot of heart-wrenching moments but it makes the supposedly successes truly shine through. Its a little scary to watch that the senses and abilities that we use everyday is diminished to being unrecognizable. Overall, The Beautiful Broken Brain is decently executed and offers up a lot of information and a very personal journey that shares both a positive message about hope but also reminds us how lucky we all are to be able to do everyday things like reading and writing.

Why Did You Kill Me? (2021)

Director: Fredrick Munk

The line between justice and revenge blurs when a devastated family uses social media to track down the people who killed 24-year-old Crystal Theobald. – IMDB

Social media and technology has been a huge basis on how crimes are solved on a lot of the recent Netflix crime documentaries. In some ways, perhaps Why Did You Kill Me feels a little lesser in terms of the depth of the case itself as it somehow loses the depth of the topics that it can go. This one focuses primarily on the case on hand and following the footsteps of finding who is involved and why it happened. It also is one of the few where for the most part, the ending is relatively resolved and not exactly some form of call for action.

Why Did You Kill Me takes the angle of a family that wants to find the killer and using the help of a young cousin on Myspace to reach out to different gang members of the suspected gang involved and finding the clues to narrow down who it is and what happened after showing signs of not trusting the police. As much as the documentary is about solving the crime, its more about the line between justice and revenge.

Between interviews and crime scene restructures with minimized scenes, the whole crime is shown in a good detail as it goes from its suspect to exploring the involvement of family members and their own backstory. The crime documentary starts off rather solid because it focuses on the whole early days of Myspace and how eventually it turned into a very extreme way of using the victim’s picture to build the online profile which does end up attracting the person involved. The whole investigation circles around a lot of the same motions and that’s where the pacing of the documentary does feel sometimes like it lacks the content as a full length feature. Its not saying that this case isn’t worth shining light on as the final note on justice and revenge is pretty decent.

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.

Double Feature: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (2021) & Don’t F*ck With Cats (2019)

Welcome to the next double feature! This time is a little different as I get the reviews for documentary mini-series out of the way. Being mini-series, it technically should be in its own segment as TV binges but Letterboxd categorized them as movies so here we are! The first is Crime Scene: The Vanishing at Cecil Hotel which is rather new as its a 2021 Netflix documentary and the other is Don’t F*ck With Cats: Hunting Down an Internet Killer from 2019, also a Netflix documentary. Let’s check it out!

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at The Cecil Hotel (Mini-series, 2021)

College student and tourist Elisa Lam vanishes, leaving behind all of her possessions in her hotel room. The Cecil Hotel grows in infamy. – IMDB

*Originally posted on Friday Film Club on Movies and Tea*

Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel is a 2021 American docu-series about the vanishing and death of Elisa Lam at the Cecil Hotel. Separated into 4 episodes, it takes a look at the beginning, progression and finale of Elisa Lam’s vanishing and what happens. At the same time, its not only about the mystery but also about the investigation process and the involvement of web sleuths after the elevator surveillance tape was released online as well as the history of the Cecil Hotel from its early days until the present.

The documentary itself definitely has some good and bad elements. On one hand, the history of the Cecil Hotel and the area that it resides it adds a lot of knowledge. As the case builds from the one event, it digs up the horrors of the hotel and the dangerous people that lived there and how the hotel ended up with these residents. Through the interviews of the past manager, the past residents and the investigators of the case, it adds in a lot of perspective that feels like tangents to the mystery the the documentary focuses around but actually gives it a lot of foundation.

The mystery itself is done well enough. In some ways, it actually feels like the historical information about the hotel actually sometimes outshines the case itself mostly because the case itself uses a narrator as a voice-over reading Elisa Lam’s online entries and thoughts and plays it out in a blurry image while also adding in some of the real footage from the news and the investigation. The case is rather mysterious especially with the elevator surveillance tape that gets released and web sleuths who try to decipher this footage and all the questions that it raises. Ever since Don’t F*ck With Cats docu-series was released, web sleuths seems to be a hot commodity to add into mysteries, perhaps more pushed forward by the fact that Unsolved Mysteries have been revived on Netflix as well.

For this docu-series, where it does falls short is that it never really pinpoints a solid direction in execution and sometimes feels like it wants to touch on too many different issues from online bullying, mental illness, Cecil Hotel, who is at fault, etc. All these issues are big things to talk about and yet, the big points of mental illness, which should have been the focus didn’t have as much time to dive into, since that should have been the big takeaway from this one. However, at the end of the day, for those unfamiliar with Elisa Lam’s case and the Cecil Hotel, it is a rather fascinating one in terms of the information that it offers.

Don’t F*ck With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (Mini-series, 2019)

A group of online justice seekers track down a guy who posted a video of himself killing kittens. – IMDB

Don’t F*ck With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer is a 4 episode mini docu-series on Netflix that highlights the trek of web sleuths tracing down a kitten killer after releasing a brutal video which leads to a bigger case which involved the killing of young man filmed and released to the public as well. Its hard to talk about Don’t F*ck With Cats being the main reason that it follows a case that is tracked down to a killer located in Montreal, a city that I personally grew up in. The places this killer frequented and lived are areas familiar to myself and for that, its one of the reasons that makes this documentary probably one that hits a lot harder especially the unsettling feeling that unspeakable things could be happening all around us and no one ever really knows. I’m not naive to believe that that isn’t that case, but watching something like this definitely brings that out.

With that said, Don’t F*ck With Cats on one hand is well-executed as a documentary. It starts off focusing heavily on web sleuths and the power of the Internet that pretty much using the right avenues, you can probably track down anything. Other than the very disturbing video of the kitten killings, the web sleuths part actually is an entertaining and intriguing as the community comes together but also leads up to a conclusive thought at the end that gives the viewers a final question to ponder on whether they were the push that caused the killer to elevate to bigger crimes. I’m getting ahead of myself but the idea of this hunt moving between the Internet killers and how it tracks from a single video to eventually being able to pinpoint a location by the end and eventually provide information to the police to hopefully help with their investigation is a fascinating sort of journey as it also parallels with the inevitable focus on the crimes of Luka Magnotta. There are also uses of videos from when the investigation was going on and such which always adds to documentaries.

To be honest, Don’t F*ck With Cats is a really good documentary. On one hand, its one to definitely watch as its focus on web sleuths and the power of Internet is quite intriguing and triumphant for the most part for what they were able to discover however, on the other hand, its also a disturbing case and one that should be highlighted but then as Luka Magnotta is still alive, it almost seems unfair to bring him that spotlight given the information even though the show does make a good point to give space for friends of his human victim to talk about this person whose life was ended so young. In some ways, while the case revolves around the killer and proves how the Internet is a powerful tool when used correctly. The biggest takeaway is that the Internet is great in some ways and also horrible in other ways. The openness of it brings on its own consequences and in the end, that message is shown clearly giving the documentary a good amount to ponder on.

Better Days (少年的你, 2019)

Better Days (少年的你, 2019)

Director: Derek Tsang

Cast: Dongyu Zhou, Jackson Yee, Fang Yin, Ye Zhou, Yue Wu, Jue Huang, Yifan Zhang, Xinyi Zhang, Xuanming Gao, Xintong Xie

A bullied teenage girl forms an unlikely friendship with a mysterious young man who protects her from her assailants, all while she copes with the pressures of her final examinations. – IMDB

*Originally posted on Movies and Tea for Friday Film Club*

Perhaps one of the more surprising titles to be nominated in the best International feature category at the upcoming Oscars is 2019’s Chinese romantic crime film, Better Days. Better Days is based on a Chinese YA novel called In His Youth, In Her Beauty. Faced with difficulty to release due to censorship in China, Better Days focuses on school bullying while looking at the stressful and demanding environment of preparing for the National Exam which determines the future of a student and where they end up in university while also looking at the reality of family situations in China. It takes a snapshot of Chinese society, call it a social commentary if you will but the movie does end with a discussion of the progress that’s been made with the different ministry departments of creating laws to protect against school bullying. With that said, the movie rather lengthy running at 2 hours 15 minutes, which is structured fairly well as it starts off right away highlighting the school issue and building up those tensions while moving to a second act which is focused on the relationship between Chen Nian and Xiao Bei as he protects her in the shadows. A lot of their relationship is built through actions more than words which thanks to a good direction of director Derek Tsang makes it work. Making the third act one that tugs at heartstrings despite all that’s happening and question the morals of who is right and wrong as well as bringing up how much teens believe in the adults surrounding them and how much they can help.

Talking about the director, Derek Tsang brings in some interesting direction choices whether its how he uses the lighting or moving through a montage of how time passes or just how he chooses to use the cinematography and camera pans to structure the scene to create a great effect and capture what he wants and leaving some mystery, its done pretty well. Of course, the other surprise for most familiar with Chinese pop culture is seeing Jackson Yee do rather well in his role as Xiao Bei especially since he started out at a young age in a youth boy band TF Boys. Taking up this powerful role and delivering on a decent level and especially being able to act at the pace of Dongyu Zhou who is a much more seasoned actress with a lot of great and diverse roles under her belt, a few of them previously Friday Film Club picks, Us and Them and This Is Not What I Expected. Being the central role here, Chen Nian under Dongyu Zhou is done incredibly well. She is able to bring it to a good level of tension and connection especially with a character that doesn’t say a lot and the ability to play a high school senior while being in her mid-20s and making it believable to follow her devastating experience but still in all the bad still wanting to “protect the world” and points out how no one’s taught them about how to be an adult. The most touching line in the movie between Chen Nian and Xiao Bei when he says: “It’s a deal. You protect the world. I’ll protect you.”

Sure, Better Days has its issues especially for those not too familiar with Chinese films, it might bring in the elements of losing traction and shifting focus of the film and having some melodramatic moments as it loves to bring romance in any type of film. However, what Better Days does remind me a lot of is a 2004 Taiwanese series called The Outsiders (currently on Netflix if you want to check it out) which has a similar romantic arc. While it might not be for everyone, Better Days has its heart at the right place, shares an important topic of teen bullying in China and what has been done so far while also having a decent crime story to wrap up the whole thing. Definitely one to check out if you get a chance!

A Week Away (2021)

A Week Away (2021)

Director: Roman White

Cast: Kevin Quinn, Bailee Madison, Jahbril Cook, Kat Conner Sterling, Sherri Shepherd, David Koechner, Iain Tucker

Nowhere left to go, Will Hawkins finds himself at camp for the first time. His instinct is to run, but he finds a friend, a father figure and even a girl who awakens his heart. Most of all, he finally finds a home. – IMDB

It sure seems like Netflix has been getting in on the musicals sort of film and TV. Whether we talk about The Prom (review) or Julie and the Phantoms, its been releasing some decent ones. A Week Away is a Christian musical which sets its story a week away at church camp for a runaway guy who has landed in his latest foster home after stealing a police car and faces with possibly juvenile prison if it doesn’t pan out. As he finds more friends and a sense of belonging and guidance, he starts to reconnect with himself and with his faith.

Having not known beforehand that this is considered a Christian musical and not exactly the religious type myself, A Week Away actually was better than I expected as the addition of its religion and faith wasn’t pushing too hard and the story and music does blend into the scenario, making it feel more like a coming of age teen story very similar to High School Musical right down to the music. Plus, the story gets right down to the plot and kicking off both the camp and the characters with an musical number. The music and the choreography is pretty good overall. The story is a tad predictable and very basic and straightforwars but still acceptable.

Where A Week Away starts to have most of its issues are with the script and acting. While musicals do tend to have a level of overacting, the script here sometimes feels a tad choppy. It focuses a lot on the different activities at this camp and the different teams as well as the different friendships and relationships which is unfolding over the course of one week only. On one side, its fun because of the different activities but it sometimes feels like its missing some depth as well. The younger cast definitely is missing a little something in their roles where sometimes it seems to fit with their character and sometimes, its still not quite there.

Overall, A Week Away is an okay musical. There are some fun moments and the whole musical elements are done well enough however the story itself is a little lacking and familiar. The story itself falls into formulaic territory even though the story does have a heartwarming message in the end especially when it doesn’t push the religion and faith part too hard and actually does have a decent flow.

Despite all this, on a personal level, this worked probably better because it reminded myself of a summer when I did join church fellowship with my cousin when I was younger and that was pretty fun. It was able to bring the themes of friendships and sense of belonging alive which is something that I do like about the film.