Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Incredible Jessica James vs. The Incredible Jessica Williams

This month is already affectionately (or not-so-affectionately) known as Anxiety August, which is like a less chill version of Blog Free.  Welcome to our paradise.

The Film:

The Incredible Jessica James

Where to Watch:

Netflix

The Premise:

Jessica Williams is…more or less a version of herself navigating personal crises and keeping her dreams of becoming a playwright alive.

The Ramble:

Nothing seems to be going right in any part of Jessica James’s life, personal or professional.  Having just broken up with her long-term boyfriend and facing rejection after rejection as a budding playwright, JJ is pretty much done on all fronts.

I feel you, JJ.  The one bright light seems to be that her bff Tasha has got her back, plus her job teaching kids theater at a non-profit isn’t too shabby.  However, this is far from the life she envisions for herself.

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Archetypal look laden with secret bff meaning.

Even though dating is gross, JJ agrees to go along on a date Tasha sets up.  The date is with a 30-ish man (yeah, right) who is recently divorced and dubiously named Boone, so I guess it follows that they both need a rebound relationship in the logic of all rom-coms.  They don’t seem destined for each other as he has no interest in theater and she can only think about the ways in which he’s completely unlike her ex.

After deciding to go their separate ways, JJ ends up spending the night in his apartment and then moves on.

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“I really am 30!  Why are you laughing?”

Meanwhile, she’s determined to convince one of her most talented students, Shandra, to attend an upcoming writer’s weekend.  They have a bit of a falling out because Shandra would rather spend time with her dad during their weekend together, something JJ doesn’t have a whole lot of understanding for.

As it turns out, JJ is un-enthused at the prospect of returning home to Ohio for her sister’s baby shower.  She doesn’t have the best relationship with her family as the big city girl who left to pursue her dreams rather than settle down.   As a small act of rebellion, she writes a book about subverting the patriarchy, which is less than thrilling to the other ladies at the shower.  She also does a perfect imitation of a pretentious film student and is super rude about what true theater is when one of the guests asks her which show she should see in New York.  We get a little bit more family backstory eventually, but not to a degree that seems particularly satisfying.  I’m not going to deny that family relationships are hard, but if you’re going to make a film about it, you need better character motivations.

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I don’t remember putting this on my registry…

After returning to New York, JJ breathes a sigh of relief.   She’s clearly still not over her ex, continuing to write scenes in which she confronts him about their relationship and he begs for another chance…only to be crushed by falling pianos, etc.  Both JJ and Boone help each other get over their exes by taking important steps like unfollowing them on Instagram…then giving each other updates on the other’s ex.  JJ seems to finally catch a break personally and professionally, with things all coming together—until of course they aren’t.  Will things turn around for the incredible Jessica James?

The Rating:

3.5/5 PPHs

Don’t get me wrong—Jessica Williams is great in this, but somewhat underutilized.  There are moments when her natural charm and humor shine through (like when she shames a manspreader on a subway car), but her character seems to be written as a less interesting version of the real JW.

The times when real emotional depth is attempted fall flat, and the scenes with her family just unintentionally make her seem self-centered.  Their family drama seems so…normal, and there’s no clear reason for the rift between JJ and her family.

Ok, AND I’m probably super biased here, but JJ slags off Ohio, which I can only deal with coming from actual Ohioans.  Have a disproportionate number of serial killers hailed from Ohio?  Are we the state people only care about during presidential election years?  Is it somewhat disheartening that we’re incredibly proud our rivers no longer catch on fire?  Yes, yes, and yes—but, like family, it’s our dysfunctional mess.

I loved the scenes between JJ and her best friend, however few and far between they were.  I would’ve really liked that to be the central focus of this film rather than her attempts to get over her ex and the development of her relationship with Chris O’Dowd.  Can we be real for a second?  She and Chris O’Dowd have ZERO chemistry.  ZERO.  And I didn’t believe him as 30-ish for a minute.

Spoiler-ish (but not really because this is a light-hearted rom-com that doesn’t pull any punches):  the ending pissed me off because everything came together so neatly in a way that didn’t feel earned.  And Boone makes a romantic gesture that would personally make me really uncomfortable and wonder what he really wanted from me.  To wear my skin Buffalo Bill-style?

No?  Have I just become the world’s most cynical living human?

Did this one make Christa’s dreams come true or send them back to Ohio to die?  Find out here!

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Book Reviews

Book Review: Church of Marvels

I don’t usually do book reviews (bad librarian) because if I don’t like a book, I don’t finish it, while if I LOVE a book, I find it difficult to be snarky. Snark-less is not a status I’m particularly comfortable with; however, I’m willing to power through it so I can tell you how much I love love LOVE Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels. (But please note that since this is Leslie Parry’s first novel, I’m basically obligated to despise her at least a little bit.)

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Just last month you could have quoted me as saying “The novel is dead” (you can seriously start throwing rocks at me any time and I won’t blame you at all; I got a huge eye roll from my mom for those words of wisdom). I need novels to be engaging, the characters believable, and the prose beautiful. I’m not opposed to genre fiction, but soooooooooooo much of it seems to be writers plugging different names into the same plot (this conversation between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro is the most perfect article about genre I’ve ever read: http://www.newstatesman.com/2015/05/neil-gaiman-kazuo-ishiguro-interview-literature-genre-machines-can-toil-they-can-t-imagine). Anyway, my point is, I’m looking for a long-term commitment with a novel. I want to think about it for a long time after I’ve read it, what it means, which were my favorite parts. This book? Check, check, and check.

I’m going to avoid spoilers as much as possible, so I’ll keep plot details brief. There are three intersecting stories: that of Odile, a former carny trying to find her twin sister after losing almost everything in a fire; Sylvan, a night-soiler searching for the origins of a baby he finds while shoveling shit (really); and Alphie, a woman locked in an asylum because of her overbearing Italian mother-in-law. The only complaint I have with these three characters is that Sylvan is at times way too nice/likeable to be believed, but maybe that’s just my cynicism speaking.

The secondary characters are excellent. I DARE you to tell me you wouldn’t be terrified if you met the Signora in a dark alley. Though she is dead before the book begins, the mother of Odile and her sister Belle, Friendship Willingbird Church, is in the running for biggest badass in literature (also best name). Case in point:

“My mother was fearsome and beautiful, the impresario of the sideshow; she brought me and my sister up on sawdust, greasepaint, and applause. Her name—known throughout the music halls and traveling tent shows of America—was Friendship Willingbird Church. She was born to a clan of miners in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but ran away from home when her older brother was killed at Antietam. She cut off her hair, joined the infantry, and saw her first battle at the age of fourteen. In the tent at night, she buried her face in the gunnysack pillow and wept bitterly thinking of him, hungry for revenge.”

There are more plot twists than you can shake a stick at. This is basically the modern, feminist version of Dickens; I kept thinking of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, though that’s not really a perfect comparison. One of the characters collects teeth. TEETH. That’s straight-up a page out of Miss Havisham’s book. At a certain point, you’ll get to a major plot twist and everything will make so much more sense.   There were several plot twists which made me re-read the paragraph multiple times because I was thinking, “Fuck, does that mean what I think it means? Wait, really? How did I miss that???”

Most of the novel takes place in the seedy underbelly of turn-of-the-century NYC (thank CHRIST b/c I’m really tired of hearing about rich people, Downton Abbey), but all of it is described with completely lovely prose. There is a brothel located at the end of a giant whale skeleton. And consider how beautiful this description of tigers being burned ALIVE is:

“The tigers were the first living things she saw. They were galloping down toward the shore, their great legs springing through the sand, cloaks of flame rising from their backs. She waited for them to howl, but they were silent. She didn’t even hear the sound of waves breaking over their bodies as they thrashed blindly into the sea.”

It’s seriously been AT LEAST a year since I’ve read a book I liked this much, the last one I can recall being Octavia Butler’s Kindred (don’t talk to me about Fledgling, though). There’s some fantastic exploration of identity and disguises and healing. But you don’t have to take my word for it…because this novel speaks for itself:

“His early life, he thought, was like the slow flip of photographs: the images were too sparse and sporadic to make any sense together, but each was so vivid that whenever one flickered to his mind, he was startled by its intensity. How could certain visions like these remain so luminous, and yet he had no recollection at all of what had come before or after?”

Please read this book so I can freak out (further) about it.