Sunday, August 1, 2021

Don't You Just Love a COVID Wedding: A Hallmark Movie Trilogy


Don't You Just Love a COVID Wedding: A Hallmark Movie Trilogy

Warning: The following list may/will contain spoilers for three Hallmark wedding movies released this past year. If you wish to stay clear of what happens in these movies, please exit the tab and join me once you've watched them. Or you can take that warning with a grain of salt and read on. Whatever floats your boat.

With that said:

I don't have a lot of experience with weddings. I've only been to three in my life, two for cousins and one for one of my elementary school teacher's daughters who looked after Luke and me from time to time. Most of my memories as a guest have been eating delicious food, talking with guests during walks or at the reception (I had a great conversation with another old elementary school teachers at one), and dancing the night away to "All Night" by Icona Pop. I can see through TV movies and stories that those involved with the wedding process have their own memories, too: picking a date, choosing what they're going to wear, and getting to be surrounded by the ones they love.

When COVID made its trek around the world, forcing everyone into their homes, happy couples had to rethink their special days. Maybe they'd delay it, maybe they'd throw a celebration online, or maybe they could have a wedding with a few close friends and family once the dust settled. However they did it, they made it work. So did production companies who filmed these three Hallmark films last summer.

I watched all three of these movies when they premiered, but I thought it would be fun in May to turn on Hallmark Channel, re-watch them before I started my summer internship, and review them all in one place. They're now available on DVD (two on the same collection state-side), they were filmed for different programming blocks, and amidst the fake snow and shiny Christmas decorations, crews (and even actors) were able to quickly transition from season to season without a hair out of place. It's pretty incredible.

I'll be going in order of when these filmed, starting with:



Wedding Every Weekend

Filmed from June 22nd-July 13th, 2020

Here's the first movie I saw with Kimberly Sustad and Paul Campbell I referenced in my Hallmark Christmas 2020 movies post. Here, they play Brooke and Nate, a physical therapist and a car repairman invited to the same four weddings. Brooke also happens to be Nate's PT after he pulls something in his knee at work. What starts as the two wanting to stay single and attending each wedding as "wedding buddies" turns into something more as the two realize they care for one another in a non-platonic way. But will a misunderstanding threaten to dismantle this new connection?

Sustad and Campbell work really well together. At a viewer, I can tell they're comfortable around each other, which helps make their chemistry as co-stars sparkle. We get to see Brooke and Nate grow throughout the movie with their views on their jobs, yet also with each other. I enjoyed that Julie Sherman Wolfe avoided having one of the main characters stay in a relationship we knew wasn't going to last; it ends during the first segment. She even has Brooke and Nate wait four months before their misunderstanding gets cleared up. Usually it's immediate (give or take a couple days), but having this time skip helps Brooke get back on her feet to accomplish her dream of opening her own physical therapy business. Maybe trying it here was what inspired a similar ending from Wolfe for a future Hallmark movie that aired this year? Who can say...


What also makes this movie work are the weddings the leads go to. The couples aren't all white, and for the first time in a Hallmark movie, there's a gay wedding (with a kiss!). Based on what I read when Crown Media was getting backlash from the Karens, the production team didn't want cookie-cutter nuptials. They wanted to show love was love. There's an interracial wedding, a Jewish wedding, and a Black wedding on top of the gay one. After the Black Power movement resurged last summer, the timing was perfect. It's led to more queer characters and BIPOC actors popping up here and there. While me (and many fans) would like more of a push, it's a step in the right direction Wedding Every Weekend helped get started.


Wedding Every Weekend's ensemble cast also clicks. Canada's Next Top Model alum Brandi Alexander and Hallmark favorite Jaime M. Callica play off each other very well as the leads' respective best friends and couple Ginny and Greg. There's a great conflict between them as their wedding approaches (Greg isn't taking it seriously), and both actors handled that very well. Peter Benson gets to play a Not End Game Love Interest that's a little more of a dork and not as dismissive, Karen Kruper and Malcolm Stewart shine as Brooke's parents, and Kazumi Evans, Rarity's MLP Generation 5 singing voice, pops up a few times as a wedding planner. Some of the cast don't get many lines, but everyone does a great job when it's their time to shine.

A fun tidbit of behind-the-scenes trivia: Half of the wedding guests weren't played by people, but by mannequins. I didn't notice that both times I watched this movie, so they must blend seamlessly with the human extras. Thank you inspirethoughts who brought up that note from Paul Campbell! 

As a whole, this movie was the perfect end to Hallmark Channel's Summer Nights programming block last year and hints at what's to come for the network's future. It's got great main characters, well-handled conflict, and a cute romance you'll want to see play out. Lovely direction and cinematography doesn't hurt, either. Wedding Every Weekend is a must for Crown Media newcomers and longtime fans alike.

Five Stars

Favorite Moment: When Brooke's parents walk her to her future business location and you can clearly see the left side of a Walmart through some trees. I love it when TV movie cameras blatantly show businesses that exist while trying to cover them up at the same time. It's hilarious.




Beverly Hills Wedding

Filmed from June 29th-July 18th, 2020

My excitement for Beverly Hills Wedding started when actor Matthew MacCaull's Instagram stories on set were shared by Hallmark fan account Hotline Hallmark. The account still exists, but the user who ran it, Sherry, died last fall. Nonetheless, she helped me get into checking the UBCP/ACTRA What's Shooting listings and holiday movie fan account SleepyKittyPaw for behind the scenes "tea." I'll always thank her for that. I didn't have any idea when this was airing, but I saw Brooke D'Orsay and was immediately ready.

The first Love Ever After movie for 2021, the plot revolves around Molly Machardy, a wedding photographer, figuring out a way to plan her younger sister's wedding without breaking the bank. Her co-worker, Chloe, suggests entering a wedding contest, and Molly ends up finding one hosted by renowned wedding planner "to the stars," Terrence Roquefort. When her essay gets them selected, she's excited to travel to Beverly Hills (but really, it's Vancouver), but Cory Cronin, the groom's older brother and her ex-boyfriend, is also coming along. Although worried it'll be awkward, the two put aside their differences and enjoy each other's company. However, could a fresh start to their relationship be thwarted by overextravagant wedding details and Molly pushing her dream wedding onto her sister?

Hot take incoming: I really enjoyed this movie the two times I've watched it. Despite having three writers and one Terrence line being questionable, Beverly Hills Wedding has a fun story, fleshed-out conflicts, and a sweet romance centered on two people who simply fell apart. I get why Cory and Jordan were less enthusiastic about the opportunity to go to Cali, but given that they're used to small-town life in Hughes, Oregon and small family celebrations (outside of Cory's work), their cynicism made sense. I understand why Sophia finds it easier to go along with Molly's plan at first because the latter had to raise her when their parents died. We see it slowly unravel as the movie progresses, along with plenty of callbacks I'm happy the writers included. Everything was handled in a mature way that other writers would have milked for drama.


I also think this is Brooke D'Orsay and Brendan Penny's work to date. They're able to make their characters' less appealing traits charming and not annoying. Given that the last Penny movie I saw had him play someone who came on too strong, getting to see him play Cory with more nuance was a nice touch. I liked getting to see more of Ben Sullivan outside of Crown Media mystery movies, Emma Johnson gave subtle touches to Sophia that made her immediately likeable, Matthew MacCaull plays a gay character in a non-flamboyant way, and Dolores Drake continues to deliver comedic side character gold. Everyone delivers memorable performances, and I get new life whenever I think about the phrase "too pedestrian" now.


It's also understandable why longtime Hallmark fans didn't vibe with this. Molly wanting the Beverly Hills wedding to work to the point she takes over duties meant for her sister and micromanages every detail is annoying, but it's due to a maternal instinct and wanting what's best for Sophia. This made it more tolerable for me. While I didn't see Jordan talking to Sophia about this proposed wedding as stepping on her toes or being borderline abusive (I saw it as looking out for her best interests, too), I get why some viewers did. They talk about it several times before Sophia puts her foot down. There are some digs thrown and "sophistication" questioned, but the main four have known each other for a long time. Being that close leaves weak points vulnerable, which made these moments work for me more than they did in Kiznaiver. The writers wrapped them up in a mature way with some clever callbacks and a nuanced look at Terrence's career to round it off. Molly and Cory both recognize where they fucked up and apologize for it, and the wedding still goes through...just not in Beverly Hills.

Although Wedding Every Weekend is just as strong from a story standpoint, Beverly Hills Wedding is the best out of these three movies. I think it's got a great plot, developed characters, compelling conflicts, well-framed shots and pretty lighting, and strong acting that made this fun to watch both times. It may have its hiccups, but I kept grinning seeing everything play out. There were also a lot of repeated locations from Cranberry Christmas (but this was shot first), which made this film even more fun. It's not going to work for every Hallmark fan, and I wouldn't point new Hallmark viewers to this movie as one to start with, but Beverly Hills Wedding is one of my favorite premieres of this year. I'm adding it to my personal collection ASAP.

Five Stars


Favorite Moment: When Molly said both "This is a wedding, not a frat party," and  "Yeah, because you instigated it. Always with your little comments." I quoted those lines ad nauseum for three months.



My Best Friend's Bouquet

Working Title: Neverbrides

Filmed from July 13th-August 1st, 2020

What's fun about My Best Friend's Bouquet are its writers. Not the two who came up with the story, but the two who wrote the teleplay. Did you know Hilary Galanoy and Elizabeth Hackett not only wrote Netflix rom coms Falling Inn Love and Love, Guaranteed, but also Disney's Geek Charming and Nickelodeon's Rags? Looking back, it explains this film's balance between juvenile whimsy and martial woes.

Josie Hughes believes a wedding bouquet has the power to choose who will be the next person getting married. She's convinced Athena will be the next lucky bride-to-be since her relationship with Brian is leading to a ring. But at her friend Emma's wedding, she's not only surprised to meet someone she has an instant attraction to but winds up catching the former's bouquet. She's worried she may have ruined Athena's happily ever after. Once she starts going out with Will, though, she realizes it could be a sign that she's found her own beau, too. This poses problems for Alex. He and Josie have been tight since college, and with a job offer dangling in front of his face, he isn't sure how long he can keep his feelings for her on mute. With multiple roadblocks popping up in their way, can these two figure out a way to tell each other they're the one before Alex winds up leaving?

My Best Friend's Bouquet does a great job at utilizing the bouquet as a motif. I doubt the "woman catching the wedding bouquet will be the next to marry" theory is new, but Galanoy and Hackett put a fresh spin on it. We get to see Josie questioning her beliefs once Brian's mother, Donna, tries to push for the wedding she couldn't have for her son and Athena, making the latter uncomfortable. She remains purposefully oblivious of her romantic feelings for Alex, but the idea of him dating someone else doesn't sit right with her. It's well-developed, and although you'll shoot Josie confused looks when she gets swept up in believing Will is the one, it does pay off in an unexpected way that made me smile at the TV.


Compared to the last two movies, this one has more problems. The beginning feels too expository when Josie explains why she trusts the flower bouquet, making it clunky when you realize it's only for the audience's benefit. It would have been better if the writers slowly built up to it. Galanoy and Hackett deviate from Hallmark trappings by having mature resolutions for Josie and Will and Athena and Donna's subplots, but people who aren't as experienced with TV movies will get annoyed at that one scene.

The cinematography for this movie also doesn't translate as well to air. The shot framing is good, and the props team had a keen eye with the autumn decals, but the lighting likely imposed during post-production washes out most of the actors on screen if you're watching this on TV. It doesn't look as bad when you're streaming it, but the softer palette doesn't do well on a bigger screen. Jingle Bell Bride also had softer lighting (which I find funny, considering the two who directed these movies are father and daughter), but it compliments the locations more than it did here. Hopefully this doesn't pop up in Amy Belling's other films if she does more for Crown Media; there were some good moments she captured that would have been better without the amplified brightness.


Last but not least, I want to highlight this cast because a Crown Media movie having a predominately BIPOC cast is rare. They're usually cast as the best friend or in bit roles, popping in and out whenever the script calls for it. Chaley Rose mentioned in an interview that she wasn't planning on doing this movie if she and her co-star were the only two main BIPOC cast members, which happened in the 2019 Christmas movie she filmed, A Christmas Duet. Here, that's not the case. The cast is balanced out perfectly. We have plenty of great performers, Chaley Rose and Nathan Witte make their characters' friendship believable, Thomas Cadrot gets more than two lines (although I watched an earlier movie with him in it after this), and my favorite side actor from the Netflix Baby-Sitters Club adaptation, Kevan Ohtsji, has a brief but memorable character. I also love the fact that Jaime M. Callica went straight from Wedding Every Weekend to film this movie. He makes Will charming if distant, but not in a way where we're supposed to hate him.

Although My Best Friend's Bouquet went over some speed bumps, making this my least favorite movie of the three, I fell for more of its charm on a re-watch. It's able to be both silly and eye-opening, has a great main couple, entertaining subplots, and a wonderful cast to round everything up. Put this movie on if you want to escape from brisk fall nights, preferably with a warm drink and popcorn with M&M's. It's what Josie would want.

Four Stars


Favorite Moment: The awkward double date where Alex and Will try to one-up each other while Marissa stares on in silence and Josie tries to lighten the mood. It ends with the two men tearing the check in half, and Chaley Rose delivers the line where Josie tells them it's fate beautifully.

With that, it's a wrap, folks! Stay tuned for more TV movie business coming your way soon. Cherish these last moments of summer with the people you love and respect. Just be responsible about it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Occult Academy Review


Occult Academy Review

Warning: The following review will contain spoilers for Occult Academy. If you want to stay clear of what happens in this show's story, please exit the tab and join me once you've watched said show. Or you can take that warning with a grain of salt and read on. Whatever floats your boat.

With that said:

An original anime project brims with possibility. It gives a team creative control to come up with whatever they want and the potential to create something they're proud of. For a viewer, it's a chance to see a familiar concept reimagined or a world unlike they've seen before. These projects go one of two ways: They either swim, making graceful laps around its streaming competition, or sink, becoming a disgrace to anime history and an audience flop.

In 2010, A-1 Pictures, TV Tokyo's anime department, and Aniplex partnered up to develop Anime no Chikara, "the strength of anime." Their goal was to allow creators to make new stories to be animated. Three series came from this project: Sound of the Sky, Night Raid 1931, and Occult Academy.

I briefly caught a glimpse of Occult Academy's key visual when I was young, but that was it. Back when NIS America was still licensing and distributing anime, the show was released stateside in 2012, then petered out of existence. I completely forgot about it until I was compiling a list of available shows on Crunchyroll for my college's Anime Club last year. It looked fun, so I added it to the schedule for first semester. We ended up deciding to follow this along with My Next Life as a Villainess, watching the first half before we had winter break.

The minute I saw Maya Kumashiro swing a chair at her father's spirit, I knew this show was going to capture my heart. It had many elements I was drawn to, but its immersive story and effective comedy made me hungry for more. I wanted to see these characters grow and laugh at Occult Academy's bizarre sprinkles of humor. Better yet, I wanted to uncover the secrets the writers were building, especially around the organization tasked with finding Nostradamus's Key and the Key itself.

Since we were busy with Sailor Moon for the entirety of last school year, Luke and I didn't get to this series in time for Crunchyroll to announce they were pulling several titles produced by Aniplex by the end of May. Wanting the opportunity to watch this show legally before it continued its descent into anime obscurity on the deep net and not wanting to throw over a hundred dollars at the nearest eBay seller to obtain a copy of NIS America's release yet, I asked Luke if I could watch this ahead of him. He gave me his blessing, saying he'd get to it eventually. Note to self: Always ask before you go ahead and watch a show we were planning on watching together.

I'm happy I did. Occult Academy is not only my favorite anime of the year so far, but it's now one of my all-time favorites. It's a lost gem that takes its fascinating premise and utilizes it to its utmost potential. The cases will keep viewers intrigued, the main character arcs feel earned and go in unexpected directions, the plot twists are genuinely surprising, and the ending ties everything together in a surprisingly perfect way. The animation, score, and voice acting also hold their own weight. Despite having more cooks in the kitchen than a usual cour-length show, Occult Academy is an anime that shouldn't be forgotten. It's fresh, it's funny, but most of all, it's memorable where other original projects aren't.


Story

It's 2012. A group of men are getting a call from an agent in the past, asking them for help so he can teleport back to the future. Right before he can return, a monster attacks him, only part of his body making the trip. Why was this man in the past, you ask? Well, Earth in Occult Academy has gone to shit. On July 21st, 1999, aliens invaded, wiping out most of humanity and leaving nations in shambles. In order to reverse this, young men are being sent to the past to retrieve Nostradamus's Key, an object believed to be the cause of the invasion. Since they've exhausted all their other options, #6 will be their last agent.

Cut to June 1999, where Maya Kumashiro is traveling to Waldstein Academy in Matsushiro, a school her father established to share the love of the occult with his students. Two flaws with this logic: Junichiro is dead, and Maya despises the occult. After her father's research drove a wedge into their relationship, Maya is back at Waldstein to attend her father's funeral. But after a recording from her father casts a spell, a spirit resembling her father is unleashed and wrecks havoc in the school. Reuniting with her childhood best friend and meeting a few eccentric students, Maya comes face to face with her anger and grief as she defeats the spirit and decides to destroy what her father built to make peace with her childhood.

Lo and behold, a cell phone falls from the sky, followed by a naked man in a gold glitter beam. Enter #6, otherwise known as Minoru Abe, AKA Fumiaki Uchida. In 1999, Fumiaki was known as Bunmei, a boy who used psychic abilities to bend metal spoons. Fast forward thirteen years, and that ability is long gone. Now considered a fake and humanity's last hope, Fumiaki is back in the past to teach at Waldstein Academy while also looking for the Key. Unfortunately, he's not skilled enough to take on this task on his own because of his little experience and getting easily distracted by Mikaze, a local diner worker. This is where Maya comes in.

After their rough start, Maya begrudgingly decides to work with Fumiaki after they find her father's old diary with spells to protect them from vengeful monsters. It comes in handy after a mysterious spirit breaks into Maya's new home (her father's old place) and almost kills her. Realizing there's more to her father's death than meets the eye, Maya not only decides to play both principal and student but offers her help just as long as the occult stays out of it, please and thank you.

It's then that different phenomena start showing their faces around town. From mothmen, a stimulated near-death experience, Chupacabra, and even a ghost, Maya and Fumiaki investigate along with the former's newly minted friends. Maya soon discovers Fumiaki's more similar to her than she thought, and she learns to accept the occult for what it is and the joy it gave her as a kid. But why are all these supernatural creatures running amok? Who is responsible for this? What secrets is Waldstein's vice principal hiding? And can Maya and Fumiaki find Nostradamus's Key in time in order to save the world?

Right away, what sticks out in Occult Academy the most are its successful tonal shifts. I've talked in the past how anime with both comedic and dramatic material don't handle them in the best way, especially if the show has gone in a particular route or an episode starts off innocent enough but then leans toward darker territory. Occult Academy never struggles with this. The show does have its sinister and unsettling moments, but the gags find a way to brighten it up. My favorites ended up being Chihiro's crush on Fumiaki. While she's suspicious about him at first, she falls head-over-heels for him when he compliments her on her signature hair style (two buns positioned vertically in the middle of her head). She starts a diary and writes love poems, and both times we hear these poems in the first half, they're placed in situations that contrast the language. It's incredibly entertaining and absurd to the point where a couple Anime Club members wondered if the show was on something.

There are a few more character-specific quirks (Fumiaki can't do his job; Kozue loses her glasses and is villain bait for most of the arcs), but that's not all the show has going for it. The comedic timing is impeccable. There are well-placed music cuts and lines that break tension in the best possible way. Thinking about it now brings me back to the slice-of-life and comedy shows, along with all the funny moment compilations, I watched when I started getting into anime. Those did such a great job balancing everyday life or supernatural action with a twist of humor or a punchy joke that made me laugh. Occult Academy shouldn't be as successful with its humor as it is, but there's a lot of material here comedy fans will appreciate, regardless of exposure.


I was also surprised that Occult Academy's arcs worked as well as they did. Despite the show having five writers (with two only writing two episodes a piece), each one helps move the story along and allows the team to flesh out the characters, especially Maya and Fumiaki. You could argue that they're filler. You could argue they have nothing to do with the main plot of Nostradamus's Key. However, I don't think this is true. Maya and Fumiaki's partnership grows so much from how it initially starts. We get background on Ami and Maya's friendship from when they were kids and see them go through a rough patch when Ami's father tries to get Maya to see the excitement she used to feel with the occult as a child. We see Kozue lose a distinguishing part of herself when she volunteers to experience death and the sadness that can't be drawn to the surface because of this. We also have Maya grapple with the loss of her dad and how she never gave him a chance to work on their relationship after he withdrew into his work. It may not be at the pace people are used to seeing in other shows, but stuff still happens.

Speaking of stuff, how the anime resolves its main plot was satisfying. All the loose ends are tied up, there are a couple twists I didn't see coming, and the show ends happily with 2012's Earth being intact and whole. We get misleading villains in Chihiro and her assistant, who actually turn out to be good guys trying to protect Maya from harm. Mikaze ends up being the main antagonist, which, given her role in the show, makes complete sense. Nostadamus's Key ends up not being a literal object at all. And Maya's father, who the show makes you believe is dead, is actually still alive and working with the agents in the future. These reveals are perfectly uncovered one after another and made the last three episodes exhilarating to watch.

Great humor, arcs that successfully moved the story along and developed the main cast, plus the fantastic ending made Occult Academy's plot come together in a way I deeply appreciated. Even though there were a lot of writers and elements that seem like they wouldn't work together, everything does, and that's always better than a show that doesn't deliver or falls short.


Characters

What also makes Occult Academy a lot of fun is its great cast. We get a wise range of personalities, gags, and growth here. Even if it's mainly with the main cast, the supporting characters also add their own flair to the show, and I ended up attached to all of them.

I'm going to start with Maya:


Maya Kumashiro is the current Waldstein Academy headmaster. After Episode 2, where she gets attacked by a spirit after moving into her childhood home, she becomes a full time student. Before she became disenchanted with all things occult, she loved hearing stories from her father and Ami's, trying to conjure spirits like Kokkuri-san and believing curses were real (like counting her elementary school's uneven number of steps). Now, she still knows all the things she did as a kid, but her readiness to believe in the occult is slim to none. Maya also refuses to put up with Fumiaki and anyone's bullshit, taking charge to figure out what's going on in Matsushiro and being persistently stubborn about it.

However, once Maya stops denying anything and everything occult, she starts to open up. Not only does she bond with Fumiaki, realizing they had similar childhoods where they were overlooked by their parents, but starts to get close with some of her fellow students. As a group, they help a ghost named Akari have one final Christmas with the help of her distraught father, reeling from her freezing to death waiting for Santa to arrive at her apartment. This helps Maya realize when she moves out (and has the house she lived in demolished) her own wish was for occult lovers to have a place where they felt like they belonged. Hence, her father built Waldstein Academy, and she didn't know or understand why because they pushed each other away. Feeling guilty about not letting her father back in, Maya resolves to find out who killed her father and to protect the school, all while finding and destroying Nostadamus's Key in the process.

When I opened this review, I mentioned this show had an immediate effect on me when Maya slammed a chair into her father's spirit. She was unapologetic, didn't back down from danger without a fight, and put Fumiaki through the ringer on several occasions. They were traits I had seen from time to time from female leads, but never in this kind of show. Maya has so much life and made Occult Academy all the more fun to watch. I could tell the creative team had a lot of fun developing and writing her. Her snark and ability to take charge is a far cry to other characters in this vein, who are often objects of sexual harassment by others around them and writers, along with being objects of someone's affection. While these characters have brief glimmers of this agency, it gets smothered by everything else.

With that presence also comes a great amount of depth. While Maya and Fumiaki's dynamic is similar to other anime with tsundere leads (Aria the Scarlet Ammo immediately comes to mind), what makes it work better is their trust in each other. Once Maya sees that Fumiaki's childhood reminds her of her own, she decides to stop treating him like shit and take him seriously. This allows them to work better together so Maya doesn't constantly have to breathe down Fumiaki's neck. Two moments that stick out to me are Maya running after Fumiaki as they're getting chased by a mothman yelling, "Stay three meters..." in Episode 4 and telling him he doesn't have to leave in the series finale. In Maya's case, letting Fumiaki in gets her to see that he's not a lost cause. His mission is important to him, even if he's a wuss who gets easily distracted. It allows them to foster a deeper connection where Maya not only lets Fumiaki do more but doesn't hound his ass when he doesn't pick up the pace. This also allows her to realize her fault in her decaying relationship with her father, something she would have constantly denied if not for Fumiaki.

These duel aspects work in tandem to create one of my favorite anime leads of all time. While Maya may not be as iconic as Ryoko, Grell, or C.C., Occult Academy still gives her plenty to do while making her look like a badass doing it. I think many viewers will enjoy Maya's journey and rightfully acknowledge her for the strong character she is. The series wouldn't have been as strong if the lead character ended up being Fumiaki, who I'll talk about next:


Fumiaki "Bunmei" Uchida was a child legend in 1999. Thanks to his spoon bending skills, he was invited to several talk shows, schools, and events where his proud mother could show Japan just how talented her son was. However, this constant traveling made Fumiaki long for a normal life he couldn't have. His mom felt he didn't need friends because of how popular he was, and as such, he grew up resenting her and eventually lost the abilities he had in the first place.

Fast forward to 2012, and Fumiaki's not doing great. Now living on the street, he spends his life trying to gain money by doing the spoon tricks he can no longer do effectively. It's here the agents recruit him and send him back to the past. Now going under the collective name Minoru Abe, Fumiaki becomes Waldstein Academy's history teacher, armed with an orange flip phone to locate Nostradamus's Key. There's just one catch: Fumiaki sucks at his job. 

He paints himself as a badass when he first tells Maya about being recruited, gets distracted easily when trying to do work, and runs away the second anything scares him. As the series goes on, he does gain more confidence after he decides to follow Kozue in the near-death experience machine to try to save her. By the end, he realizes he's never done anything for himself that someone didn't tell him to do. So once the anime reveals what Nostradamus's Key is (the two Fumiakis meeting in the past) and the aliens begin to invade, Fumiaki sacrifices himself in order to stop it. Before he vanishes, he tells Maya to look after his younger self, a promise she keeps.

Fumiaki's the perfect deuteragonist to bounce off of Maya. I was entertained by the fact he was an awful time agent but did care about his job and finding Nostradamus's Key so Earth's not overrun by aliens in 2012. We've all been reluctant to try new things or scared to task risks in our lives at some point; Fumiaki's the comedic representation of that. It's easy to get annoyed at him presenting himself as the hero to Mikaze or not doing the work he's supposed to be doing, but there's also something charming in it because it's immediately relatable.

His growth throughout the show, especially in his partnership with Maya, also feels well-earned. We see Fumiaki at his most vulnerable when he's exposed to some of his repressed memories. Thinking back on it, I think they explain his reluctance towards various aspects of his mission and why he's a wimp. When he and Maya work together, though, you can see him put more effort into investigating Matsushiro's shenanigans, which causes him to gain more confidence and trust in Maya not actually kicking his ass. It's why him deciding to stop the aliens himself resonated with me so much. It was the perfect way to wrap up his arc. He may not be as determined as Maya, but even despite the distractions, he was still able to succeed in his own way.

Onto Mikaze:


We first meet Mikaze at the diner she works at. Fumiaki comes in one night, is touched when she refers to his past self by first name, and enjoys the curry she makes, stopping by every night after that. The two don't start dating, but Mikaze's sweet enough to take Fumiaki out sightseeing in Matsushiro (where he learns she's a terrible driver), sell homemade bread at Waldstein once she gets the permission (although Maya's hesitant at first because she sees her as nothing but a distraction), and feel sorrow when touring an underground World War II bunker. She pops in and out throughout the show, and it was enough to make me wonder what her role was. Was she only going to be Fumiaki's love interest? Or was there something larger in store for her?

It turns out the latter was true. Mikaze is a Black Mage who is seeking the spell book written by Maya's father in order to open a permanent entryway into the demon world. She was able to convince people to support her cause under the guise of eliminating Maya, her one obstacle in obtaining said spell book. She almost convinced Fumiaki that Maya was Nostradamus's Key, causing him to doubt what they had learned so far, but once Maya and Chihiro fake her death in order to throw Mikaze off, the truth comes to light. Mikaze was also the one to unleash the supernatural creatures running rampant in Matsushiro and was the spirit who tried to kill Maya in the second episode. She's defeated when Maya and Fumiaki, believing she's Nostradamus's Key, read aloud the spell to seal all negative energy away. They didn't know it at the time, but as singer Jon Bon Jovi crooned, we're halfway there.

This is the kind of effective twist villain reveal other series wished they could tackle. It didn't feel random or like it was the only thing the writers could pull out of a hat to decide what they should do with her character. Mikaze's presence in Occult Academy allows her to seamlessly worm herself into the narrative without causing much of a stir. The writers sprinkle signs foreshadowing her development by having her randomly vanish, give her looks that may not be meaningful, and have her get closer to Fumiaki as the story moves on. When her group is unveiled in the most unsettling tonal shift of the series, it caught my attention immediately. Why did Maya's defeat matter so much to her if the two barely crossed paths? Once the fake death happened, the pieces started clicking for me. Despite not having much to her character, Mikaze being a Black Mage gives viewers material to look back on should they decide to re-watch the show. The subtle foreshadowing builds until it snaps. 

Last but not least for the individual sections, Chihiro:


Chihiro is Waldstein Academy's strict vice principal. With her assistant, she's constantly watching over Maya, hoping she doesn't get close to finding out information about the supernatural oddities in Matsushiro or the real reason behind her father's death. She doesn't like people disobeying her, but underneath all that, she wants someone to love. When Fumiaki compliments her hairstyle, Chihiro immediately becomes infatuated with him. She keeps a diary in her desk where she writes love poems and gets jealous whenever she sees Mikaze with the man she fancies. Occult Academy paints this as a one-sided love triangle for most of its run until we find out Mikaze's real identity.

It's here we also find out Chihiro's. Rather than keeping tabs on Maya to lure her into something insidious, Chihiro was trying to protect her from knowing too much. She was the one who convinced Maya's dad he'd be safer in the future and sent him there with the help of her assistant. In an attempt to thwart Mikaze's plans, the two stage Maya's death at the school after Fumiaki becomes convinced the latter's actually evil and in danger. This doesn't work for long once Fumiaki finds out the truth. Mikaze shows up, freezes Fumiaki in place, and destroys the spell book Maya's father left for her. This causes the other two women to flee. Unable to escape town thanks to the Black Mage's followers, Chihiro has no choice but to transform into her White Mage form. The two mages fight and argue about love's purity and greed. Ultimately, Mikaze defeats Chihiro, and near death, the latter frees Bunmei from Mikaze's spell and tells him one that will seal the former away for good. This reveals the spell book Mikaze destroyed was a fake.

When I started this series, I also knew there was more to Chihiro. But what I didn't expect was for her to end up being someone on Maya's side. Given her suspicious behavior and menacing expressions directed at Waldstein's new principal, you'd think she'd be involved in Maya's father's death. The writers give her a comedic side to balance out those moments, but the thoughts still linger. Is she the enemy the show is building to? In reality, no, but Occult Academy does a great job of misleading its audience before unveiling the truth. It's a surprise reveal, but one that makes sense. She also makes an obvious foil for Mikaze, because if one of them was evil, the other had to be good. It works out nicely.

Other characters include Ami, Maya's childhood friend, Kozue, their fellow classmate who adores the occult, Smile, the janitor/a student who wields a wrench as a weapon, JK, a dowser who dresses in emo fashion and often pairs up with Smile. He's my personal favorite from the main side cast. 

We also have the agents in the future (one being Maya's father, Junichiro), Chihiro's assistant who doesn't have a name (he's filed under Black Suit on Anime News Network) and can turn into a black jaguar, Akari Okamoto, a ghost who's accidentally revived during a séance class and is granted her last wish (a Christmas party), her father Kengo, Shige, who is Ami's dad, Fumiaki's mom who overextended her child's prowess, and a couple of townsfolk who turn out to be working under Mikaze.


Animation

The animation for this series was produced by A-1 Pictures, who are known for their work on Fairy Tail, Nanatsu no Taizai's first two seasons and the first movie, and the Black Butler franchise.

Occult Academy dropped before A-1 had some pretty severe quality drops in their titles outside of a few, so the only problem I noticed was Fumiaki's modeling fluctuating in between frames in the middle of the show. The rest of the animation looks great. I really liked how the color palette shifted depending on the tone, as darker hues came out when the show became unsettling. When Kozue enters the dream world during her near-death experience, she's surrounded by pink light and fluffy clouds. Yellow light is vivid whenever the sun set, painting beautiful shadows on the characters' faces. The monsters look ghoulish, the character designs are cool, and the animators had a lot of fun animating Maya. From her facial expressions to her movements, you can pick up little details that make her stand out from other characters. For the fanservice fans out there, there are a couple of tasteful frames that will appeal to you, too.

I also want to highlight the opening, which had some of my favorite storyboards to date. There were a lot of stylistic and weird choices that represent the show to a T and chock full of references occult fans would be drawn into. You could tell the show's team really cared about what they were doing, because some of that weirdness made the show in great ways.

All in all, Occult Academy had a lot of fun animation, and not just for its humor. There were so many good moments, the characters all looked fantastic, and its use of color was special in a way I'm not going to forget. I'm sure others will enjoy it, too.


Sound

The score for this series was composed by the group Elements Garden, who was also known for their work on shows like Uta no Prince Sama, Symphogear, and That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime.

In the past, I've mentioned Elements Garden's reverse harem scores were good. They fit their respective properties and the arrangements for the solo songs in Uta no Prince Sama and Dance with Devils captivated me at fifteen. Their score for Occult Academy is more in line with their work on the latter show. It's darker, seamlessly blends orchestral arrangements with guitars and synths, and perfectly fits the anime's time period. The genres represented in the OST could make the score feel busy in ways I've critiqued Hiroyuki Swano's work on in the past, but it's not an issue here. Occult Academy's score feels like a product of the show's historical timeframe. It calls back to genres of the past while also looking towards a new millennium. There are several pieces I enjoyed from the OST ("JK's Theme" makes me think of arcade music), and their placements in the show itself were perfect.

The voice acting was also strong. Yoko Hikasa gives Maya the star power a character like hers deserves, with a fantastic emotional range and snarky delivery that made me laugh. It's my favorite role of her career. Seiyu veteran Takahiro Mizushima makes Fumiaki both one to sympathize with and laugh at effectively, Minori Chihara gets to use more of her deeper range when Mikaze's secret is revealed (and did her best to misdirect viewers in the process at the start), and Yu Kobayashi does what she does best with her duel register. Everyone is played well, and the voice work gives these characters life in a fun way.

Other highlights include Ayahi Takagaki (whose tomboyish voice fits Ami's design perfectly), Kana Hanazawa (who I never dislike), Hiroki Takahashi (who I keep on forgetting is Koujaku, but his other voices call me back to it), Takehito Koyasu (who made JK the life of the party), Inori Minase (who I didn't know started earlier in the industry than she did), Masaaki Yajima (who did a great job providing a clear divide between Maya's father and the spirit version of him), Yuu Shimaka (who made Ami's father have a great amount of energy), Sayuri Yahagi (young Bunmei was so full of hope until things changed), Aya Hisakawa (who voiced Yuri from HeartCatch PreCure in the same season), Daisuke Egawa (Black Suit wouldn't have been Black Suit without him), and Yuji Ueda (who made Akari's father immediately sympathetic).


Verdict

Occult Academy is one of those shows I'm glad I watched. It had all of the aspects I like in a great anime, with fantastic story arcs and entertaining characters that kept me wanting to see more. Its comedy was over-the-top, its reveals were surprising in a great way, and Maya Kumashiro is now one of my favorite anime protagonists of all time. This makes me ecstatic for the other Anime no Chikara properties to see what their premises deliver on. Whether you're an occult fan or randomly stumble on this show on the internet, this is a series you'll get something out of. I highly recommend it.


Score: 10/10

Positives:

Cool story with well-executed reveals

Humor that thrives on tonal shifts and comedic timing in clever ways

Great main cast who have fun arcs

Maya Kumashiro is a fantastic protagonist

Nice animation that fits the show's aesthetic

Fun score that blends instrumentation and genres well

Nuanced performances from its cast

Negatives:

None major

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Winter and Spring 2021 in Media: New Horizons


Winter and Spring 2021 in Media: New Horizons

Warning: The following post may/will contain spoilers of various films and shows I saw earlier this year. If you don't want to know what happens in any of the properties I'm talking about here, it's best if you join me once you've watched them. But then again, if you want to take that warning with a grain of salt, feel free to stay put.

With that said:

Even though the school year wrapped a month and a half ago at the time of this post, I know I'm going to appreciate this past semester as one where I took in a lot of media. My classes played a big role in that. Three of them had us watch movies weekly or at various points of the semester. I also wanted to cover a couple of properties I followed, most of the TV movies I saw (I'm covering the new Hallmark movies that've aired this year I've enjoyed more/loved in later posts), and one show that gave me hope when stuff wasn't going the way I wanted it to. Since I still didn't watch as much anime as I was expecting, this content helped bridge some of those gaps, and though the items on this list range from stuff I loved to stuff that was fine, I do want to give credit where credit's due: Without these movies and shows, this semester wouldn't have been as memorable.

One note before we start: Although the title implies I'm covering the media I've watched starting in the winter, I decided to just focus on what I've predominantly watched during late January to early May. To The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders, you were campy excellence, but something else in the future's in the cards for you.

Without further ado:



The Amazing World of Gumball

My memories from 2011 include deep diving into international Top Models, recording "hilarious" videos on my green iPod Nano, and watching the premiere of this cartoon series live. "The Responsible" and "The DVD" captured my attention (side note: I think it's the best show premiere I've ever seen), and for the new few weeks, I followed The Amazing World of Gumball as it aired. However, my interest dwindled like an 11 year-old's interests do. I caught minor blips the rest of that year and in 2015, but I didn't start looking back on Gumball until I saw a clip from "The Shippening" in 2018, where the writers not only parodied weeb culture but also critiqued fan culture's habit of shipping, no matter canon characters or OC. From there, I saw a couple compilations and watched reruns in some hotel rooms, enjoying the hell out of the show in the process. It's chaotic, insightful, but also exceeds as a black comedy. Whenever I needed down time at the end of the day and wasn't able to watch Sailor Moon this past semester, I often put this on.

Getting to see more of this show is an experience I don't regret. The Amazing World of Gumball starts off as a comedy series detailing the wild life of the Watterson family, but its dark humor and bizarre scenarios get more over the top as the series continues. I love how much Gumball embraces its weirdness. It holds nothing back and made me realize I'm more of a fan of in-your-face comedy (although I still appreciate the subtleties). There are a lot of jokes, characters, and moments in this series that work for me, ranging from a school ban on video games, an election gone wrong, and Gumball desperately trying to get the perfect school picture. Even with a large writing team, The Amazing World of Gumball finds a way to make its material stick.


From what I've seen so far/re-watched this semester, my favorite episodes are "The Responsible," "The DVD," "The Dress," "The Fridge," "The Job," "The Photo," "The Limit," "The Fan," "The Safety," "The Crew," "The Love," "The Night," "The Roots," "The Guy," "The Test," "The Console," "The Worst," "The News," "The Candidate," "The Shippening," "The Brain," "The Stink," "The Master," and "The Web." 





Total Dramarama

One of the shows I religiously followed as a kid was Total Drama Island. I first saw it at the end of 2008 when Cartoon Network ran both TDI and 6teen but didn't know TDI was TDI until Total Drama World Tour ads started airing. I still remember when episodes for that aired every weekday in Australia, so by the end of August 2010, you knew how the competition was going to play out.

The Total Drama franchise was not only an excellent reality TV spoof, but it was also incredibly entertaining with so many great characters and moments I frequently think back on. While All Stars flopped, and I wasn't as invested when new characters were thrown into the mix, The Ridonculous Race brought back a lot of good memories despite it being a spin-off. This show does too, albeit it may not be exactly what Total Drama fans are looking for.

While it started off as a daycare comedy, Total Dramarama's humor has continued to get progressively weirder and darker as the series has continued. Sometimes this doesn't work (I can think of one specific example), but more often than not, most of its material sticks the landing. It's fun seeing the writers make inside jokes about the main show, sneak in references to 6teen aside from having Jude in the cast for no reason other than the fact they share creators, and highlight sides to these already existing characters I wouldn't have expected. Cody's material is both hilarious and terrifying at the same time.

The writers do emphasize more characters than others (Bridgette's been noticeably absent for much of the show), and though this show isn't perfect, I've enjoyed following it for the last two and a half years. It's great to get more Total Drama content that's not only fun to watch but makes me nostalgic about getting so involved in the TD community that I was creating a fake Japanese dub and OC's of Total Drama shows I never ended up doing. Again, an 11 year-old's attention span only stretches so far.


Of the episodes that aired in the past three months, my favorites have been "The Gold and the Stickerful," "Bad Seed," "Double Oh Beth," "Duncan Duty," "Encore'tney," "Life of Pie," "AbaracaDuncan," "Shock & AWW," "School District 9," "Gumbearable," "Weekend at Buddy's," and "MacArthur Park."




Hoffman's A Midsummer Night's Dream

One of the classes I took this past semester was a focus on playwright William Shakespeare's comedy and romance plays. We started the semester with Midsummer, a work I had heard about but never had the opportunity to read until this class. Shakespeare draws on fantastical elements to create an immersive world with fun character relationships and a fake entertaining play that creates a hilarious final act. While the magic potion makes some of the content problematic in Midsummer, its depicted Athens is so strong, I know I'll be back to read or see this again.

We were required to watch three movies during the course, and this ended up being the first one. I think Hoffman's adaptation excels in bringing Shakespeare's world to life, with gaudy costuming and expanded characterization. Giving Bottom, the play's fool character, an estranged marriage adds motivation to why he eventually doesn't fight back against bewitched Titania. I also really enjoyed Calista Flockhart and Stanley Tucci's performances as Helena and Puck, respectively. Both portrayed the characters in a way I didn't expect but added layers to their stasis: Helena as lovesick and horny and Puck as a mischievous trickster. I also liked the idea of casting younger actors to play Oberon and Titania (which gives me Rainbow Magic flashbacks, NGL). It plays with the idea of fairies having eternal youth, especially rulers.

Although I wish the changeling in Oberon and Titania's subplot got referenced again after his first son, Michael Hoffman's film is a strong adaptation of the play. It brings Fairyland to life in a way Shakespeare's text can't convey, and there are plenty of great performances and moments I found entertaining. If you're looking for more, the Manga Shakespeare adaptation for this play is also strong.




Love on the Menu

I remember hearing about this movie when the first three Chronicle Mysteries were dropping (which makes sense, given this premiered the same weekend as movie #2), but I wasn't interested in giving this a chance even with Inuyasha in it.


You heard that right. Richard Ian Cox, the English voice actor of Inuyasha, was in this movie. He was also in the Lost Garage Sale Mystery, but his character plays more of a role here, so that was great for an anime fan like me. When Love on the Menu dropped on Hallmark Movies Now, I decided to give it a chance since at that point, I was spending off days watching random Lifetime movies. On one hand, great for exposure. On the other, it gets stale when you don't change it up.

Speaking of stale, this film takes what would have been a tired and true premise and makes it fun. Autumn Reeser and Kavan Smith work very well together, and they're surrounded by a great supporting cast. I do wish we got to see BIPOC actors beyond being the waitstaff or cooks at Hank's restaurant, though. It's good Barbara Niven had more room to breathe as Andrea when her other maternal movie characters are stuck with little to do, but it could have taken a little more effort to not have your only actors of color wait on the white people. Outside of that, Love on the Menu's a great watch. I can see longtime Hallmark fans getting a kick out of it and newbies enjoying some of the cameos along the way.

P.S. I forgot to include this movie when I started drafting this post. In my defense, I watched this the same day as Beverly Hills Wedding (which I will cover later this summer), so skipping past that led me to skip past this.




Playing Cupid

When this movie began with Kerri dumping her boyfriend, I knew this was going to be a Hallmark keeper. Giving the female lead agency in a breakup at the very beginning never happens, especially for Crown Media. Based off another middle grade novel, Playing Cupid takes Jane Austen's Emma, spins it in a creative and fun way, and has two great leads in Laura Vandervoort and Nicholas Gonzalez. They're not new to TV movies, but they are new to Hallmark, and both did really well and had good chemistry. That scene where they lip-synched to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in David's restaurant's kitchen was everything.

I also liked how the book was reworked for a Hallmark audience. While Clara Martinez isn't the main focus of the movie, her business and role as matchmaker are still put on display, along with her own secret admirer. We see her gain confidence in herself and with her business, and new actor Mia Quaranta de la Rosa plays her with great attention to detail as she grows. Although the romantic setup and conflict resolution put this below other new Hallmark premieres I've seen this year, Playing Cupid was still a fun movie that had a cute concept and enjoyable acting. I'd gladly watch this again.




Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Whedon's been under fire recently for creating unhealthy work environments on the properties he's worked on, including killing off an actor's character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer because she got pregnant and wouldn't abort the baby. I found out about this while I was watching the movie, and while it didn't affect my experience with it too much, what's come out recently makes me want to shy away from Buffy. It's a shame, too, because I've heard nothing but great things about that show, and I've heard Marc Blucas plays a bad boy that's unlike his Hallmark character types.

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare's most outlandish comedies. I saw it for the first time at the college I'm attending before I became a student there. It's not in the setting, or in the characters, but in the potential for physical comedy in the eavesdropping scenes regardless if a director frames Beatrice and Benedick's enemies to lovers arc as the main subplot. Not only does Whedon make great use of this (the still and GIF I found are examples), but his adaptive script takes a line where Beatrice hints at a past romance with Benedick (depending on how you interpret it) and expands it. Here, they're two people who hooked up and may have hooked up countless times in the past. It's a change I believes adds more to their dynamic. They desire each other in a romantic way but won't dare admit it.

This adaptation is also very stylistic. Shot during a break of The Avengers's principle photography, Much Ado was filmed at Whedon's house over twelve days in black and white. It exaggerates bright light, and in turn the setting. It makes California look more extravagant, like this "mansion" is the pinnacle of LA life.

Despite some of the outdated elements and unfortunate shots, I still think Whedon produced a good film. The changes he made add layers to the plot (like making Conrade a woman), and reading a literary criticism article helped me understand a shot composition interpretation. The actors are putting on a show, Whedon's house is their stage, and we're just peering in, watching the action go down. It was the adaptation that worked the most of the three.




Galantine's Day Nightmare

Since I briefly referenced Andrea Canning's thriller movies in my Hallmark Christmas post, it's only fair I talk about them again. While I watched the Ruby Herring mysteries at the beginning of this year, my first Canning movie happened to be A Daughter's Revenge, co-written by Elizabeth Stuart and starring Jessica Sipos (my favorite Chesapeake Shores side actor) and Linden Ashby (who may be 2010 Teen Wolf famous, but who has also graced viewers' screens with the 90s' Mortal Kombat movie and, more recently, Trinkets). It was a good entry point despite some of its story flaws (the Anna and Charlie subplot was a flop), and while I wouldn't watch it again, I'd recommend it for those who want to see Sipos act OOC from the family friendly content many know her from.

On the Hallmarkies podcast episode where I discovered Christmas She Wrote wasn't supposed to film in 2020, Canning revealed A Daughter's Revenge was the first script she wrote that was picked up by Lifetime (although it wasn't the first to air). Looking back, it makes sense why I had a couple craft problems. It also makes sense why Galantine's Day Nightmare is the stronger title, even if it also wasn't perfect. At least I enjoyed it more.

When Clair Donahue hooks up with Brian after a fun night out with her girlfriends, she's unprepared for the hell the latter begins to unleash. Common story beats pop up (the main character has two best friends and an office job; the villain has moments where they talk to themselves; there's a charity event at the main character's workplace; the detectives discuss the case multiple times and doubt the main suspect; the culprit/s gets outsmarted in an elaborate plan), but Canning excels at creating an unsettling environment where Clair not only has to prove she isn't guilty of murder but get out of a new relationship riddled with thorns.

Since I didn't finish this on my day off in February, I ended up watching this movie over four days. While I wouldn't do that again, it was cool to see the story build with each segment I watched. Could I have wanted Canning to build Tiffany's role in working with Brian outside of minor foreshadowing? Yes. Could the editors have gone without the Wilhelm scream layered over Margaret's grunt when she died and using the same music from A Daughter's Revenge? Yes. But Galantine's Day Nightmare at least was entertaining not in a "so bad, it's good" sense but in seeing Clair investigate on her own and excelling at the end with an unorthodox plan that didn't involve a recording device (which Canning has done at least twice). It's a solid Lifetime thriller that I wouldn't mind watching again and reminding myself that dating needs a slow pace where you don't wind up having to run for your life.




Temptation of a Monk

Even with the mild violence that made me look anywhere but at the movie, Temptation of a Monk was an artistic and fun experience. Taking place during the Tang Dynasty, General Shi Yan-sheng is forced to go on the run after being implicated in a coup led by General Huo Da. While he signed a blood vow to keep quiet, Huo promised no blood to be shed. This was a lie. While General Huo is willing to rewrite the narrative and make General Shi a hero, he also wants him dead. To avoid this fate, General Shi flees, joins a monastery under the name Jing-yi, and sets off to find a new purpose in life, all while trying not to give in to the temptations monks (LOL) aren't allowed to succumb to.

Clara Law's direction is one of the first things I remember about this. There's so much beauty in the China countryside that she and her crew pick up. They utilize any location, whether a quiet monastery or a bustling town, to its full advantage and capture them well on camera. The costuming is also vibrant and colorful, signifying changes in character (like Jing-yi's devotion to being a monk and the sharp contrast in Joan Chen's characters I thought were the same person when watching this) and popping on the screen. There are many artistic choices in this film that worked for me, including moments of silence in the movie between dialogue and how important moments in the movie are framed.

Jing-yi's journey was also compelling to watch. We see him assimilate into monastery lifestyle in multiple steps, working through a couple downfalls along the way. Hsing-Kuo Wu plays him well in his moments of quiet contemplation and horny desperation. I also liked Joan Chen's portrayal of her two characters, how Scarlet seemed to open like a flower to the sun and Violet like someone just out of reach. The movie builds to a great final confrontation where we see Jing-yi where he wants to be. Now away from the chaos of the coup, his inner demons have been extinguished. While it ran long at points, Temptation of a Monk was still fun. I'd give it another go if I interlibrary loaned the DVD and could zip through the fighting scenes.

P.S.: This film was the first time I saw on screen film cunilingus. If I didn't include film, I'd be telling a lie.




Different from the Others

One of the first recorded films about queer characters, Different from the Others was released in 1919 in Germany and was subsequently banned after many groups protested its content. While the film was allowed to be viewed by medical professionals, copies were destroyed during the Nazi reign. Only one version of the film exists, it being incomplete. The version I watched (which was from the DVD cover I used above) provided title cards for the lost footage and to explain the context of this movie's silent scenes. For my Film class, I watched this in place of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari when we were focusing on production design, which ironically also included Conrad Veidt. Although that movie had such a distinct style and cool makeup to boot, the clip we saw in class was enough to have me backing out.

When I decided to look at other German Expressionist media (many films famous during this time period were silent), I poked around Google and IMDb to see what I could find. Different from the Others popped up after a couple results, its length and the subject matter being the reason why I picked it. As a queer man, I'm drawn to queer media by instinct, and I was curious to see what would happen in this film despite its sad ending. It was also lucky that my college's AV room happened to have the DVD, even if it didn't work on my computer or Xbox One.

I really enjoyed Different from the Others in its blunt assertion that gay people are just like everyone else. Originally made to protest Paragraph 175, a law that banned gay relationships in Germany, the project was partially funded by Magnus Hirschfield, a German physician and sexologist who appears in the film himself. It shows that gay people aren't sick or wrong for loving who they love; it's just human nature. Richard Oswald also displays the danger of Paragraph 175 in having Paul die by suicide despite getting the weaker punishment after Franz's blackmail. His public reputation was destroyed by getting outed to the point where he felt he could no longer live in peace.

It was also fascinating to see plot points covered here that have grown with time. Paul and Kurt are teacher and student, a power dynamic many writers have explored in fiction, fanfiction, and in other media. There's also blackmail involved, the immediate modern-day example being Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda. I don't think this film started the widespread use of these plot points, but to see them used surprised me because I felt they were more recent. Oswald also does a great job depicting Paul's background and his struggles with trying to play straight. He was never in an environment that allowed him to be who he was, culminating in his death at the end of the film. Although the optimistic ending footage is now gone forever, the message Different from the Others sends is an important one. We need to fight for those who can't live their best lives. We need to learn how we can support them. And above all else, accept them for who they are and let them know it's okay. If you're able to find this somewhere, please watch it.




Come Dance with Me/Christmas Dance

This movie is absurd in both meanings of the word. I don't think that's going to be the case with all of Chesler/Perlmutter's Christmas films (Merry Matrimony went smoothly aside from minor hiccups), but both this and The Christmas Parade (starring the CW's 90210's AnnaLynne McCord) were bizarre at points, I wondered if I was living in fever dreams. This was worse, but it didn't stop Come Dance with Me from being incredibly entertaining.

Right away, the plot is a complete mess. Kevin Commins establishes a relationship between Jack and Demi (played by Lindsay from Total Drama) that isn't monogamous? Jack's co-worker/friend, Rick (played by Shawn from Total Drama: Pahkitew Island) states the two aren't mutually exclusive since they're not engaged. Demi says the same thing later after she goes out with a realtor. It's strange. The holiday season doesn't really have much to do with the plot like in other Hallmark holiday films. Jack and Christine's building connection moves at freight train speed, and that's before we touch base on Jack stringing Christine along about her closing dance studio. The script, story, and most of the acting are completely flat. The ending's rushed. This should be a trainwreck.

Yet Come Dance with Me's also brimming with entertaining moments. The music budget was so low, Stacey Hersh's original pieces play in loops. The original DiC Naru/Molly, Mary Long, plays Jack's mom, and seeing her is always fun. Michelle Nolden's "OWWHHH!" after Jack steps on her foot is comedic gold. There's also the best abrupt scene transition in all of television. When Jack and Demi decide to go dancing, we cut to them in a club with a vocalist going, "I...don't...care...," I started howling. The song ends with "I don't care/Not at all/'Cause you're just a troll." How is that not iconic in a Christmas movie?

Basically, this film's going to be the reason I watch most of Chesler/Perlmutter's holiday film catalog just to see if those movies hit the highs and lows I've seen in the past. I'll gladly watch Come Dance with Me again just to bask in its glory. It's a glorious spectacle that revels in its awfulness and is memorable in the worst ways.




A Novel Romance

I enjoyed Amy Acker's performance in Whedon's Much Ado so much, it was a no-brainer to jump into her Hallmark content after finding out she worked on two movies. This was the non-Christmas one, plus it was released on DVD (The Nutcracker couldn't be legally streamed without ads at the time), so it only made sense in my eyes to watch A Novel Romance first. While her acting isn't as strong here, I did enjoy this fun story about a writer (writing under alias Gabriel August (which is so Nicholas Sparks)) traveling to Portland and falling in love with a book critic who felt his latest book was lacking spark. Sophie and Liam have great chemistry as characters; I could tell Hanz Wasserburger was having fun letting them try to figure out how they felt about the other and making sure they were a good person. He also does a good job defining Liam's reasoning for writing under a pseudonym. He didn't want the exposure just because he was a child of famous actors.

It may have lacked what other Hallmark movies have had for me, but this was early 2015. Crown Media was about to hit its stride and become the TV media gauntlet it is today. At least it's got a cute story, overused and poorly edited green screen, a swath of my BC faves (Tammy Gillis, Emily Tennant, and Milo Shandel) and a dramatic ending that ties everything together in a bow and with a kiss. A Novel Romance was still a cute movie to pass the time after my midterms were finished and I needed to put me first. It's not the first Hallmark movie I'd go to for comfort once my collection grows, but it's not bad background noise, either.




Nunn's Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is my favorite Shakespeare play. I feel like it's got the best humor, characters, and moments of everything I've read from him so far. Each time I pick it up or look at an adaptation, I notice elements I didn't before and end up being drawn to things I hadn't considered with earlier reads. It also helps that it's got Feste, a jester who lights up the room and has so much fun doing so.

In my Shakespeare class, this film emphasized two elements we talked about as we read the play: Malvolio's treatment after a fake planted letter, and Feste not having a place to call home. Did Malvolio deserve the humiliation? Modern audiences say no. At fourteen, I would have said yes in a heartbeat because he was type A. Now, sure he had a stick up his ass, but Maria wanting to get revenge did go too far. Nunn shows that multiple times as Nigel Hawthorne plays his way through Malvolio's front unraveling. The prison he's kept in is the dirtiest I've seen; Malvolio's covered in charcoal when he gets out. Then there are all Olivia's servants looking down at him as he demands to know why he's been wronged. I can find parts of Malvolio's humiliation funny, but discussion and Nunn's film this go around showed me why it's been uncomfortable as theater's evolved.

Ben Kingsley's portrayal of Feste is so unorthodox, it became one of the reasons why I pursed an independent project focusing on Feste portrayals in Twelfth Night's history. Rather than play the jester as excitable and high energy, Kingsley gives him somberness and makes him out to be a traveler who's lost what he believes is important. He gains it back by returning to Olivia's side, but there's still something missing. It makes me excited to see a future production of this play, because looking up Feste proves how much depth actors can give him with stellar direction.

While there were a couple elements I didn't immediately vibe with, Trevor Nunn still put together a fun adaptation. Parts of the play's text are moved, but the movie still flows well. There are plenty of great performances, especially from Helena Bonham Carter, Toby Stephens, and Mel Smith. Light is captured incredibly well throughout the film, whether outside or in Olivia's mansion at night. And the added subtext adds some dire circumstances to Viola's life in Illyria. It's a fun two hours that not only entertains but allows the audience to see the magic of this story play out in film. The casting for the fraternal twins is also perfect, especially since both actors look the same. I can imagine that was challenging.




The Secret Ingredient

Crown Media isn't new to the food competition show plot. There's been at least five I've seen or heard of, but The Secret Ingredient (I believe) is the second movie that takes the reality TV competition formula and streamlines it for a two hour run time. Even Maneet Chauhan, chef and judge on various Food Network shows, plays herself, hosting a cooking competition show exes Kelly and Andrew are competing on. There's a twist, though: They don't know they're on the show together until they face off in the final round. It's something the movie milks for much of its runtime even though it's painfully obvious to the audience, but I don't think there was another way to execute it. It gave the movie some drama and made me wonder if it would play into the angst, which it didn't.

S. W. Sessions continues to prove why they're one of my favorite Crown Media writers by giving their leads tangible chemistry, making their plots fast-paced, and having well-nuanced conflicts that are a step above what you might find in Hallmark's past. Although this isn't their best script, I think it adapts Nancy Naigle's book well, and you tell the actors involved had fun with it. I just wish the BIPOC contestants in these fake competition shows weren't always the first to leave.

Regardless, this was a fun movie to watch leading up to my day off in March. If you want something fluffy and cute to ignite your sweet tooth, The Secret Ingredient will do the trick.




Before Sunrise

I think this movie is a perfect example of how less can be more when writing a script. Initially written by director Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan, lead actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy pitched in uncredited material that makes their characters' conversations feel engrossing and nuanced. We were required to watch this movie when we were going over dialogue in scripts for my Film class, and I can see why. Before Sunrise depicts Jesse and Céline meeting on a train and spending a day together in Vienna, Austria. While there, they talk about their lives, their growing feelings for each other, and where this attraction will go once they have to separate.

Not only does Linklater take his audience through several Vienna landmarks, he also paints an instant connection that is genuinely romantic. Adult and Young Adult romance struggle with this. It helps that Hawke and Delpy have immediate chemistry and are comfortable with each other. I wasn't put off by Jesse and Céline's blossoming romance; I wanted to see it continue. The conversations they have help advance the story and make them completely fleshed-out for a movie with such a short time frame. It's an experience many have felt over the years that I vowed would never happen to me. Well, looks like it did.

There are two sequels to this film, but I feel like Before Sunrise ended things well enough between the lovebirds that I don't need to watch them. The franchise does have glowing reviews, plus the two re-connect and end up back together. But the hopeless romantic wants to paint a picture with this movie's open ending. That's good enough for me.




The Fantastic Four (1994)

I don't know a lot about this franchise. I saw the trailers for the 2000s movies (including the 2015 reboot that tanked) but have never read the original comics. I only heard about this because the actor who played Sue here, Rebecca Staab, has been in several Hallmark movies. When my Film professor went over storyboards, I figured this would be the perfect replacement for Mad Max: Fury Road. I love the idea of it being built from the storyboards up, but the promised violence? I wouldn't be able to stick through that. Besides, this film had such a fascinating history. It was never officially released (and potentially wasn't supposed to), only got traction because of unfinalized bootlegs, and didn't have the best budget. Uploads were also circulating on YouTube and Dailymotion, so it was easy to watch this as I prepped for a test and talked with my professor that day.

The 1994 Fantastic Four is a lot of fun, not only because of its faults. Yes, the script was cheesy at times, the special effects were a little weak, and I couldn't get over how The Thing's suit looked with the film's dreary lighting. But I liked getting to see an adapted version of the group's origin story, enjoyed the random subplot with The Jeweler (who was originally supposed to be a villain from the comic, but Constantin Film couldn't get the rights to use the name, so he had to be re-written), and was entertained by getting to see these heroes fight with a million dollar budget. I'd love to watch the documentary about this one day because I want to hear more about this production. How did those bootlegs leak? What did the cast and crew enjoy most about being at set? Watching both back to back at some point is a no-brainer. Superhero/comic fan or not, I think viewers would get a kick out of this either way.




Along Came a Nanny

This is Gary Goldstein's best Crown Media script. I haven't seen all of the movies he's written for, but I can tell you that the first two Flower Shop Mysteries and the beginning of Hitched for the Holidays didn't move as smoothly as this did. There's something about properties where someone has to go undercover that appeal to me. I love seeing protagonist/s work together to succeed in a mission only they can solve. Here, Detective Mike Logan has to go undercover in Poplar Point as a nanny to find out who's been committing jewelry robberies. Although he doesn't know the first thing about taking care of children, he eventually learns and develops feelings for fellow nanny Jessie White. With an upcoming mayor election and plenty of suspects, Mike needs to make both his clients and boss happy. However, this case may be more challenging than he realized, especially when his job gets put in jeopardy.

Cameron Mathison has been frequently cast in Hallmark movies, but I feel like this is the first one I've seen where he's a total goof. His characters are usually happy-go-lucky and love life (unless you're Mike Kingston, where he's a little more serious), but Logan allows him to balance someone trying to get his feet wet in the nanny business, and a detective having to play amateur sleuth in order to crack the case. He works well with Sarah Lancaster (whose performance as Jessie is beautifully understated), and the rest of the cast shines with actors familiar to me from past Hallmark ventures and not.

Goldstein also writes a mystery that's captivating and ties everything introduced together in the conclusion. I was surprised the mayor election even played a role in the culprits' motivations at all. I thought it was going to be a backdrop piece. But what really makes Along Came a Nanny stand out for me are the "All is Lost" moments. They're defined, engaging, but most of all, well executed. Undercover Bridesmaid had these too, but Tanya also had a wedding sabotage to stop in the next five minutes. Goldstein takes his time for Mike to be away from the Bannerman family (and get replaced by a co-worker) before he finds new details that could break the case. That way, when Mike comes back, undercover nanny no more, the viewers are ready to see him solve this crime before dinnertime.

Although this hasn't been released on DVD in the States (and likely won't), Along Came a Nanny is a successful undercover mystery that has likeable characters and a fun case to crack. For Hallmark mystery fans that haven't seen this movie yet and have Hallmark Movies Now, I recommend this in a heartbeat.




Chasing Waterfalls

I'm still surprised I read Cymbeline's final act during the commercial breaks for this. You'd think Shakespeare and Hallmark wouldn't mix, but they do (for the most part). 

The first new movie from Hallmark's Spring Fling programming, Chasing Waterfalls was a nice way to spend a Wednesday afternoon. I'm happy the script wasn't too busy given there were three writers attached to it (one being a director who's worked on Crown Media properties but hasn't written for one). The plot moved at a great pace, and the dialogue wasn't too choppy. I tried watching the last movie Cindy Busby and Christopher Russell starred in, Love in the Forecast, but dipped when Barbara Kymlicka passed Jennifer Lopez and Shakira off as current pop music, among other things. Yes, they still make music, but their newer stuff isn't as renowned as their past classics.

Christie Will Wolf also got to shoot at some incredible locations (like the Mystery 101 school). The park this movie is mostly set in has some gorgeous sights. There was a lot of ground covered, and it made me think about the stories nature tells us whenever we walk in it. Maybe this thought process will impact future hikes? We'll have to see.

Chasing Waterfalls does have some stiff line delivery and a conflict that doesn't get completely resolved (did Amy quit her job?), but it also avoids some of the tropes other Hallmark movies are guilty of, and Amy and Mark's romance is enough to draw people in. It's an easy watch, and sometimes, that's all you need.

P.S. An actor from a recent Swifter commercial, Sherilyn Allen, was in this movie as Amy's co-worker. 




All's Fair in Love & Advertising

I ended up watching this movie twice. The first time was the night before A Novel Romance for fun; the second was for my Film class. I watched this film in place of Run Lola Run for my Film class's editing week. The movie wasn't bad, but some of the violent imagery and how the first arc ended didn't sit well with me to the point where I cried 20 minutes after watching the first half. Jumping to a Hallmark movie was an easy solution. Although most TV movies are edited in similar ways, All's Fair in Love & Advertising takes an artistic approach that models where the main characters work: A magazine office.

Kristoffer Tabori's been one of Crown Media's more creative directors (for better or worse depending on what movie you're watching), but I think his work with cinematographer Neil Cervin is at its best here. There are a lot of unorthodox shots and techniques here I haven't seen in Hallmark movies today. Camera operators are underneath tables, obstructions have an artistic edge, and there are split screen moments sprinkled throughout. It fits in with how the advertising world is ageist, spitting older members out in favor of young, "hip" talent.

The acting here is also great. The cast has plenty of my British Columbia favorites, from Andrew Francis, Michelle Harrison, David Lewis, to Sarah-Jane Redmond. Michael Eklund and Hamza Adam were the newer standouts as the two Rage leaders, but everything's tied together thanks to a great lead performance from veteran Steven Weber. Ken Krauss's script moves at a fast pace and had some humor that wouldn't fly in Crown Media Land today (for example, there was a prostitution reference). I did wish we got to see more of Harriet and Tom's romantic chemistry built up in the middle, but All's Fair in Love & Advertising is still an entertaining Hallmark movie fans will enjoy if for the message alone. Who cares about age when someone's got the skills?




MatchMaker Mysteries: The Art of the Kill

Along with the Ruby Herring mystery series, the MatchMaker series struggled to find its footing among audiences when it started in 2019. Viewers didn't gel with the first mystery mainly because Angie Dove, the main character, was unlikeable. I wasn't initially interested in following this series since it didn't look that good, but I gave the first movie a chance during Thanksgiving break. I didn't want to just write off a mystery series just because of an outside view. I wanted to see it for myself.

Three movies in, I can safely say this series is getting better. It's not the best in Hallmark's current mystery catalog, but it's still entertaining enough to warrant a watch. Angie's gotten more likeable, Danica McKellar and Victor Webster are working better together, the cases have gotten stronger even with some hiccups, and The Art of the Kill brings several actors together who either haven't been in a Hallmark movie before or haven't been in one in a while. What makes The Art of the Kill the strongest so far has to do with Dave Thomas developing it. Given his work on Bones, I think it made this mystery feel grounded and more based in reality, especially since it's centered around the art museum. The subplots get tied together in a great way, and there are plenty of convincing leads for viewers to follow.

While the acting is a bit off at the beginning from some of the actors, that smooths out throughout the mystery. I never would have considered Danica McKellar acting as a "rich bitch" to be that entertaining. Bruce Boxleitner's character doesn't only make glorified cameos, and though Patti Stanger couldn't fly out to give an iconic one scene appearance, we still get a couple of great moments that made me laugh. I'm happy my school's surprise off day landed the day after this movie aired because this was the perfect start to my day. Hopefully more kinks are worked out if the fourth installment's filmed. There were some good signs here I'm looking forward to see in the future.




Exit Through the Gift Shop

For our final movie in my Film class, we were asked to watch a documentary. Despite knowing nothing about Banksy and very little about street art, you don't need to be a fan of both to appreciate what Exit Through the Gift Shop does. What starts as Thierry Guetta's look into the street artist lifestyle becomes his life when Banksy asks him to make art of his own. The fact that he was able to get a show running in six weeks with the pieces he and his team made was shocking. I really got to see his passion over years of work culminate in "Life Is Beautiful." It distanced himself from the friends he made and raises the question of whether he's a real artist or not by using copyrighted work and styles his peer were famous for.

I also love the debate over this movie being real or not. Guetta's evolution into Mr. Brainwash unfurls so fast, you could say Banksy planned this from the start. However, I think Guetta's fascination with street art makes Exit Through the Gift Shop a documentary and not a mockumentary. We see stepping stones that Guetta takes to get where he was in 2008. It makes sense that he'd become a street artist; he spent so many hours with creators and with Banksy himself. All that work he saw only fueled the fire. So when Banksy gave him the challenge, it makes sense why he took it.

All in all, Exit Through the Gift Shop is worth a watch. It helped me understand more about prolific street art, why some artists want to remain hidden, letting the art speak for itself, and depicted the story of a man so enamored by the street art he saw that it influenced him for his own success.




RuPaul's Drag Race: Season 13

It's about time I talked about this show. The franchise has been so prominent in the Top Model community I've been in for years, but I didn't start actively watching it until Season 11 aired. Drag Race has become a competitive reality TV show phenomenon; watching it every week is an event. I think back to following and watching the Top Model franchise weekly as a kid and how I craved every drop of content. The same's true for Drag Race. I love its iconic stock music, getting to root for contestants as they progress, and taking elements from the show to consider for a fake Webkinz version of it. With or without spoilers (I avoid any on episode content but don't mind the occasional elimination order, challenge winner, and lip sync song. I'll black out at least half of it), I enjoy the pre-season buzz, getting to talk about the show with my brother and friends, and the reflection once all is said and done.

Although I haven't waded through the franchise's backlog yet, I've seen Seasons 11 and 12, All Stars 5, and Canada's Drag Race Season 1. Season 13 is my favorite American season to date. I say that since I had a lot of fun with Canada's Drag Race when it aired last year (that's a topic for a later day). But Season 13 is just as entertaining and memorable with a likeable batch of queens, fun challenges, and a couple twists to shake things up. There wasn't anyone I disliked this time around; I found reasons to like everyone. Were some drag queens better than others in a reality TV show environment? Yes. But there wasn't a clear villain this time around. Bonus that it wasn't a Black queen, a curvy queen, or all of the above.

Production had fun with setting up the challenges this season. After three episodes with no eliminations, the show set the bar high with a Hallmark movie acting challenge I want to bless the gay interns for. Cheesy scripts with banal plot lines and holidays some Hallmark movies don't touch? An immediate classic. We got a couple of concepts I hadn't seen the show tackle in what I've seen, and they did a good job working around not having outside guests for the makeover challenge. I also got introduced to challenges I only heard about in the past and am ready to see more of. Maybe not queens getting told they're getting eliminated after just arriving on set, though. I don't need to see that kind of psychological warfare.


Season 13 also proved to be the perfect entry point for my mom. After years of hearing us talk about the show, Luke and I got her into it. Even though she missed a couple episodes because of other plans or glitchy cable, I enjoyed calling her every week to see if her favorites shifted, what she thought about the judging, and go through all the reasons why she didn't like Utica (which outside of her not getting into the quirky queens I will never understand). It was fun to hear someone enjoy the show simply for what it was: A vehicle for drag queens across the US to obtain a wider platform and get thrust into the homes of thousands. Drag Race has shown I can be more flexible with who I like, how the season rolls out, and if that storyline is going to be very important in the weeks to come. With an amazing winner to top it off, what more could you ask for? I'm curious to see how Drag Race got to where it is now but also can't wait for what's next.




Hearts Down Under

Produced by the Steve Jaggi Company and released as Romance on the Menu on Australian Netflix in September 2020, I wasn't surprised when Crown Media licensed this to air in the States. I can make a checklist as to why they likely did: An actor that's been a lead in plenty of Hallmark movies. Writers who co-wrote the teleplay for a past tile. Australia. Having an open time slot they didn't mind filling. This was initially supposed to air in May but was bumped up by a month for unknown reasons. Again, I can whip out the checklist: The TV cut reformatting was done at this point. Crown Media execs decided to air a companion to a popular past movie in May. It's a title that can realistically air any time they want it to. Hearts Down Under is so flexible, Hallmark Channel could have easily aired this for their Summer Nights programming, and it wouldn't have been shocking.

Naturally, I was going to watch this when it premiered, so I did while eating my first Dairy Queen burger and fries (which were actually quite good). This movie has some amazing scenery shots that made me wish to see a sunrise beyond just in my house, and I noticed the camera equipment was stronger than the usual Hallmark film. Rosie Lourde captures many great moments, and the project's warm lighting drew me in immediately. Caroline's arc was also fulfilling. Seeing her come to appreciate Lemon Myrtle Cove and enjoy making food again made the moments where she came across bratty better in my eyes. Cindy Busby may not be the best actress, but she did make me sympathize with Caroline at the moments where it counted.

The overdramatic conflicts were also entertaining. My favorite moment in this movie is when Caroline and Tim got locked in the restaurant pantry. It played out like a fanfic, with the two screaming and throwing food at each other, Caroline believing she got played and Tim wanting to know if she really wants to sell the restaurant. It's a forced scene that was surprisingly effective in getting these two to shape up and act like adults in a moment where they were acting like kids. Alison Spuck McNeeley and Casie Tabanou also did a great job bringing in Caroline's ex (claiming to be her fiancé, SMH) at the best possible moment to create peak drama. I was on board.

While Hearts Down Under had its hiccups, it was still entertaining enough to tide me over right before finals. Since the Crown Media edit has ad breaks, I'm curious to see what the Australian Netflix file looks like whenever I get to it. I also need to break out the kitchenware and make a satisfying meal to enjoy while watching this.




You're Bacon Me Crazy

When I noticed the only time I could watch this in April and May was my last day of school, I jumped on the opportunity, move out time crunch and all. My mom did ask a friend of hers to record You're Bacon Me Crazy in case I couldn't watch it, but after getting a late lunch and walking my dog, I sat down for the Hallmark culinary experience.

The reason why I wasn't into this movie at first was due to it being based off a Scholastic middle grade book. I don't think I was a fan of how the adaptive team made this into a Hallmark movie, which given The Angel Tree and Playing Cupid, seems silly. Maybe the start of the pandemic was making me a little pessimistic? Regardless, I think I'm more open with the Hallmark movies I watch now as long as it's something I don't vibe with.

You're Bacon Me Crazy was super cute. I think Christopher Sey did a great job with taking the subplots in directions other Hallmark writers wouldn't risk. Even though the film's bio states Cleo and Gabe are competing against each other, the movie takes its time in actually setting it up. The two have a slight conflict before the main conflict almost has them drifting apart. Gabe's former business partner/flame is the host of the contest, and instead of creating romantic angst there, the two patch up their differences when they meet again. These were good moves that didn't set this movie back.

Natalie Hall played Cleo with a suaveness that really worked for her, there were plenty of familiar faces to get excited about, and all of the food made me want to do one thing: Cook. And bake. Wait, that's technically two. There have been plenty of opportunities for me to do that so far this summer, which has upped my confidence. At the end of the day, You're Bacon Me Crazy is a nice cozy watch you'll want to savor time and time again.


With that, you're all caught up. I hope May was an eventful and productive month for you. Make sure the rest of your summer is an educational, fun, and safe one! Until next time: