Quickfire round: The Half of It

What is love? One of the best lines in this quirky LGBT romance movie answers that question, shall we say, boldly. It’s just a shame that it fails to tie everything together nicely by the end of its runtime.

I have no idea why Netflix marketing thought this was the best shot to use for media publications.

Ellie Chu is a high-school genius who writes paid essays for her classmates – it’s much needed money, given the work-shy state of her father. Knowing how good Ellie is for words, underperforming (and far too nice) jock, Paul Munsky, asks her to write a love letter to his crush. But, friendless and bullied, Ellie has never known what love is, so she ironically plagiarises an old movie for inspiration.

The girl in question, Aster Flores, perfectly fits the somewhat cliched mould of beautiful and popular, yet complex and misunderstood, that we often see in indie romance films like this one. Upon receiving Ellie’s letter, which was far too intellectual to have realistically come from Paul, she begins to rethink her relationship with her rich and popular boyfriend. Maybe there is some out there that gets her?

So far, so cute, so typical. But there’s a bit of a twist – Ellie is crushing on Aster just as hard as Paul is. Ellie isn’t faking it when she writes to Aster; her writing, that resonates so strongly with Aster, comes from the heart.

So, look, it’s an adorable and often funny movie. It’s beautifully shot, well paced (objectively slow, but fittingly so), and touches on the sensitive subject of unreciprocated lesbian romance. It’s no surprise that the movie won Best Narrative Feature at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. However, I do have a couple of issues with it.

Firstly, Ellie comes across as remarkably confident and assertive considering she has no real friends and is often bullied, which seems a little… odd? Secondly, the movie doesn’t really come to any kind of satisfying conclusion. The best it can muster up is a sweet link to an earlier scene in the movie, producing a warm fuzzy feeling but not one of satisfaction. I suppose it’s intentional – as wild as the concept of Ellie’s pseudonymous back and forth with Aster is, the film brings it right back to reality at the end, leaving me a little dejected.

Altogether, though, this is a nice movie to watch if you like what you see in the trailer (and much better than Dangerous Lies on the scale of Netflix films).

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What I thought about: Magic For Humans (Season 3)

I had a smile on my face when I saw this one on the ‘Upcoming’ list on Netflix, and I’m happy to report that my smile was maintained throughout. This contemporary and thoughtful take on a magic show is a great watch in these trying times.

Ah yes, the famous ‘floating empanada’ trick.

What’s it about?
Justin Willman is a professional magician, and he’s really good. But this isn’t your normal magic show – there’s no ridiculous hype, no expensive props, and no sassy, over-confident magician. Instead it’s, well, human! Every episode is entered around a theme that explores the human condition. Power Trip, Vices, Home, Self Care, Know Fear, The End, and Tradition are the themes explored in this season (and the titles of each episode, in order).

Justin performs a variety of tricks in each episode. There are running themes – Magic for Susans is simple street magic for women, ostensibly whom he randomly meets on the street, called Susan. Trick Questions has Justin showing someone a trick and then immediately asking them a random question. Usually, they are too astounded to answer. Then there are larger tricks performed in locations that match the narrative of the episode.

What do I like about it?
The presentation of this show is refreshing, cute, and thought-provoking. All of Justin’s performances are either performed in the street or in a setting relevant to the show’s theme. There’s no studio audience, and the entire thing feels a bit like a documentary, with Justin as the host providing thought-provoking voiceovers while casually dropping magic all over the place. As such, the show has an incredibly broad appeal and is suitable for all ages (and indeed some of his audience are children).

Oh, and the magic? It’s good, and again, it’s relevant to the theme. Best of all, Justin just gets on with it. He’ll do a few of the usual magic flutters, like pretending a trick hasn’t worked or asking them to say a special word. But there’s no pointless hype-building – just really nice magic with genuine reactions.

What do I not like about it?
Justin claims there are no camera tricks or fakery in his show. For some of his tricks, I can agree with that statement. But there are times where he does something absolutely outrageous that I can’t accept is done in a ‘legitimate’ way. For example when he produces the exact object the audience member asked for from an empty bucket. It’s not so much the appearance of the item that’s unbelievable, but that he had exactly what they were asking for, over and over again. I suppose… that’s magic? But I’m not so sure.

Also, upon reflection, I do feel as though the tricks in this season were by and large a tad less impressive than previous seasons. That’s not to say they’re rubbish or anything, I just came away with that feeling.

Worth a watch?
Absolutely – and why not start from the first season? Episodes are only 20 minutes long (I watched this one in a day).

By the way…

  • Justin performed a magic trick at his wedding (obviously) – you can watch it on YouTube here
  • The people over at IMDB are not happy about this show, claiming it’s all fake, scripted, and uses actors. Who to believe?

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What she thought about: Never Have I Ever

Looking for something light-hearted to watch over dinner? You’ll want to skip right over this one. Mindy Kaling’s latest so-called ‘comedy’ had me in tears from start to finish.

Me praying that Nick Jonas sees the error of his ways and swaps Priyanka out for me instead

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from my girlfriend. As a western-born Indian girl, I thought she would give a good perspective with her own review of the show. For what it’s worth, I also watched it, and thought it was really good.

What’s it about?
Devi is an American-born Indian girl, trapped between two cultures and just trying to navigate the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. Sometimes, she gets it right. Most of the time, she really doesn’t.

I went into this so-called ‘comedy’ written by Mindy Kaling thinking that it was going to be a teenage version of The Mindy Project: a little bit cheesy, a little bit cringey, very light-hearted, and with the occasional poignant moment thrown in here and there as proof of character development. I have never been more wrong in my assumptions about a series as I was with this one. Yes, it’s both cheesy and cringey in equal measure; but no trailer or review could have emotionally prepared me for the way I sobbed every single time Devi’s deceased father appeared on-screen in flashbacks. Kaling’s writing in Never Have I Ever isn’t as snappy as some of her other work, but she exchanges some of her trademark humour to perfectly portray the loss of a loved one, and in my opinion, it’s worth it.

What do I like about it?
I like almost everything about this show, but if I had to pick one thing, it would be the length, both in terms of episodes and the series as a whole. In a world of series that seem to drag for forty minutes or more, with 20+ episodes per season, NHIE offered some light relief with minimal commitment. Length aside, as a British-born Indian, I connected with Devi on almost every level–all the way down to the Nick Jonas/Priyanka Chopra joke that crops up somewhere in the middle of the series. I suspect that some of the nuances of the Indian-based humour are lost on white audiences, but Kaling nails it as perfectly here as she does in all her other work.

What do I not like about it?
It was occasionally too unrealistic for me. There were moments when I sat there and thought ‘well, this would never happen’, only to remember that this is a teen sitcom; of course there will be some exaggerated or unrealistic elements (Glee, anyone?). Still, I found suspending my disbelief really hard for certain moments on this show, probably because it feels so rooted in reality for so much of the time. This meant that, at times, it was really jarring and just didn’t work for me.

Worth a watch?
Definitely. It’s short and sweet and oh-so-bingeable, so stick it on if it’s one of those evenings where you feel like a good cry.

By the way…

  • Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the actress who plays Devi, was chosen personally by Mindy Kaling out of 15,000 candidates that applied for an open casting call for the show.
  • It was cute to see Angela Kinsey, who starred alongside Mindy Kaling in the US version of The Office, popping up as Ben’s mother.

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Quickfire Round: Dangerous Lies

What was the point? Was that really as bad as it looked? Two questions I asked immediately upon seeing the end credits flash up on screen. Netflix do great TV shows, but it seems they have a long way to go for movies.

If I told you 2/3 people in this scene get shot in the last 5 minutes of the film, would you believe me?

Dangerous Lies is a mystery-thriller with one of the most unsatisfying endings I have ever seen. It begins with a cliché – a caregiver (Katie) unexpectedly inherits the estate of her employer (Leonard) after his sudden death. Her boyfriend (Adam), having been turned down for one to many graduate jobs, is a bit too keen to move in and start spending some of the late Leonard’s cash.

What follows is, until the final moments, a head-scratching, eery, mystery. Anonymous phone-calls. A dodgy realtor. A suspicious police detective. And an increasingly anxious Adam. But then it all just goes… bad? Threads are pulled together by way of extreme assumption and implication which is so far-fetched as to be wholly unsatisfying for any mystery fan. Some red herrings are left completely unresolved, surely a crime against mystery story-telling. This trail of disappointment culminates in a rushed ending where, and I don’t normally do spoilers in this blog but it seems apt here, three key characters are shot and killed in the space of a few minutes. Yeah – it just fell completely flat.

One thing I will give the movie credit for, although I’m not sure it deserves it as it’s probably unintentional, is the world-building. Each setting is distinct and over-the-top, which I feel helps add to the mystery and the viewer’s sense of unease. For example, the man running Katie’s care agency is portly and stereotypically old-fashioned – we see that in everything from his attire to his dusty old office. Yet, the movie is clearly set in the present as Katie has a modern smartphone. A pat on the back for the stage department, too, as the opening scene outside a diner features an appropriately excessive array of neon lights which dazzle brightly on a Dolby Vision-capable television.

Netflix films might have a fancy budget to help with production but they don’t appear to have the right scripts just yet. Give this one a miss – the trailer oversold it.

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What I thought about: Trying

When is a comedy not a comedy? How relatable should it be, if it doesn’t make us laugh out loud? This cute little show about a couple in their 30s navigating the adoption system is sometimes funny, sometimes heartwarming, but never large doses of either.

It’s all smiles – perhaps too much smiling, considering their underlying issues.

What’s it about?
Jason and Nikki are 30-somethings living in Camden, London. They’ve just failed a round of IVF and have been told the prospects of any subsequent rounds succeeding are poor. Not wanting to miss out on the ‘joys’ of having children, as all their friends are now doing, they apply to adopt. The show follows their progress, as well as touching lightly on the lives of their friends and family. Nikki’s older sister is dating a jobless ‘creative thinker’ type, Jason’s best friend has just had his second child and isn’t taking it well. Meanwhile, Nikki’s Tinder-equipped younger colleague is there to remind her of her lost youth.

What do I like about it?
There are some funny moments in this one. Jason is a natural joker, and often comes out with the best lines in the show. I also really liked the small montages at the end of each episode where we see just a few seconds into the life of some of the more minor characters in the show, such as Jason’s boss Googling for things to do in Geneva after quitting her job, and their social worker cleaning her jacket at the laundrette (I won’t spoil why). Speaking of the social worker, it’s a stand-out performance from Imelda Staunton, nicely capturing the well-intentioned scatty-ness of the character.

What do I not like about it?
Sweet as it is, I have a number of concerns with this show. I’m not sure how relatable it’s going to be to many people. They’re a young couple living in central London – one might dismiss them as stereotypical Millennials. I feel as though the show is going to appeal mostly to young adults with kids, or young adults living in London looking to get kids. For everyone else, I worry they won’t see what the point of the show is at all. It’s certainly not funny enough to stand out as a comedy in its own right.

There are random bits and pieces that I think are supposed to have some kind of meaning, like Jason’s meeting with his ex, but either they are scripted poorly or they just don’t go far enough, because I didn’t get the point. Many of the show’s elements, from the couple’s parents to their day at the approval panel, lack sufficient context or depth, and it affects the flow of the show.

One thing I really disliked is the strange blur/aberration at the top and bottom of the screen in most of the shots. Sometimes there’s also a fish-eye lens effect going on. I suppose it was a creative choice, but to me it was an unnecessary and unsightly distraction.

Worth a watch?
Watch the trailer, and don’t set your hopes any higher than the impression it gives you. Still interested? Then go for it, it’s nice. Otherwise, no need.

By the way…

  • A cameo from The Mash Report‘s Rachel Parris was a surprise.
  • This is the first British show to come out of Apple TV+. More, please!

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Spring Clean – Other movies I’ve watched this year

I watch significantly more TV than I do Film. I think I find a 2-hour movie too much commitment. Oh, but a 5-hour TV series binge? Yeah, no sweat.

Sorry to Bother You
This was a weird one. It starts almost immediately with an uncanny valley feeling when the lead character starts a new job in telesales. Then the white guy accent comes out, and the weirdness steps up a level. Then again. Then again. Then, just when you thought you reached peak weird, it gets insane. It was good though – watch it!

One of the more innocently normal stills from this movie.

Watch out for that toilet later.

Parasite
This needs no encouragement from me. A deserved Oscar-winner and a great introduction to Korean cinema. It does get a bit weird towards the end – but hey, that’s just how they are.


Uncut Gems (half of it)
Yeah, no. I don’t doubt that this was a stand out performance from Adam Sandler, but I just found it way too stressful to watch. Everything kept going wrong in a way that just made me really anxious. I had to stop half way through.

Who knew facial hair was all it took for Adam Sandler to have depth as an actor?

I mean, it’s Keanu Reeves.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
It’s a John Wick movie. The plot is not really important (and it’s not really that good, either). But the action scenes are phenomenal, and Keane Reeves is a god. That is all.


El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story
I didn’t really feel this one, to be honest. It was really slow, really emotional, and I don’t really remember what actually happened. I was disappointed. There is, however, one incredibly satisfying shooting scene. Breaking Bad fans will watch this regardless.

Jesse is a wanted man in this lengthy snooze-fest.

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Spring Clean – Other shows I’ve watched this year

Sometimes one simply loses the will to write a fully formed review. Before we sleepwalk into the second half of the year, here’s what else I’ve seen in 2020 so far.

BoJack Horseman (Season 6)
A cute and fitting end to the story. The show pioneered so much when it began back in 2014 – an interesting art style, human-animal-ish characters, and metaphors galore. It’s sad to see the show all finished, but clearly BoJack couldn’t keep running from his mistakes forever.

For those new to the show – it gets better after the first season.

The show continues to explore some really important topics.

Sex Education (Season 2)
Viewers, now fully exposed to the show’s main gimmick of having a shy teenage boy give sex and relationship advice to his schoolmates, will appreciate the continued plot and character development. I’m convinced they blew half of the show’s budget on the school musical in the final episode, which was really quite something. I did however find the Isaac-Otis-Maeve triangle quite frustrating, particularly at the end.


You (Season 2)
I don’t really need to explain to readers how good this show is, because I know you’ve already seen it. The second season , shot in a completely different location and with a largely fresh cast, was fantastically thrilling (although I didn’t care much for the trippy episode). Not to brag, or anything, but I saw the ‘twist’ coming a mile off. It was still satisfying when it happened.

Remember: people die in this show.

Cesar’s actor is… underwhelming.

On My Block (Season 2)
On My Block is a great little show to watch. It’s a comedy drama that doesn’t take itself too seriously whilst also shedding some light on the families caught up in gang warfare in Los Angeles. It’s best asset is its ensemble cast, each with their own striking personality. That said, I continued to be disappointed in Diego Tinoco’s performance as Cesar.


On My Block (Season 3)
This season came out immediately after I finished the previous one. I also thought it was pretty good, and was pleased to see the hilarious and surprisingly intelligent Jasmine get promoted to a main player in the group. However, the season finale was abrupt, confusing, and ultimately a little disappointing.

The gang are on a treasure hunt.

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