H2N Review: The Incredible Jessica James

The Incredible Jessica James could just as well be called The Incredible Jessica Williams, because it’s basically a feature-length reel for the talents of the effervescent former Daily Show correspondent. Williams has got the dramedy chops and the charisma to sell what would otherwise be a medley of romantic comedy/self-exploration tropes. Netflix picked up this Sundance favorite, written and directed by Jim Strouse expressly for Williams. She played a supporting role in his last film, (the comma defying People Places Things) with such aplomb that he wondered why she hadn’t yet helmed a film.

Jessica James is a mid-twenties playwright living in Brooklyn. The thing about Jessica (both James and Williams) is that she doesn’t do anything half-assed. She boogies her way through the opening credits, celebrating life and immediately luring in the audience with her awesomeness. That’s not to say that she’s devoid of challenges. She struggles with a recent breakup. (Though she initiated the split, she continuously fantasizes about run-ins with her ex [LaKeith Stanfield, TV’s Atlanta] wherein he begs for her to take him back before being abruptly killed in a variety of freak accidents.) She papers her walls with rejection letters from theater companies, paying her bills with a job mentoring kids in the (read with British accent) art of theatre at a non-profit. She desperately wants her students to match her passion for the craft, and she gets a little overbearing when it seems like her favorite kid isn’t trying hard enough. Jessica is lovable but she’s also flawed and complex. That’s just not something you see very often in female-driven comedies…

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H2N Review: World Without End (No Reported Incidents)

I had forgotten all about Counting when I started watching Jem Cohen’s latest, World Without End (No Reported Incidents). But after just a few minutes, it all came flooding back. Cohen has a distinctive documentarian voice that’s all about observation. He goes light on titles and completely eschews narration. He simply enters a place and takes a good look around. He lets the place tell the story. And it’s the story that the place would be telling whether or not you were there to see it…

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H2N Review: The Most Hated Woman in America

It doesn’t take much for a woman to become the recipient of scorn in America. Usually, just pointing out any sort of inequality between the genders will get a girl in trouble. So it was especially easy for the outspoken atheist and “non-conformist”, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, to earn the title of “Most Hated Woman in America” in 1963, when she won a lawsuit that resulted in banning scripture from public schools. Tommy O’Haver’s identically titled biopic, stars Melissa Leo as the brazen woman in question, framing the story around the true crime ending to her life. In 1995, O’Hair was kidnapped, along with her youngest son and granddaughter, and held for ransom. Perhaps it’s because of this that O’Haver and co-writer Irene Turner visited the Coen tonal wellspring in their script. It doesn’t quite succeed in emulating its influences, but it does effectively tell the story of a woman who deserves to be remembered…

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H2N Review: Little Sister

Zach Clark’s follow up to 2013’s White Reindeer, shares plot points with some rather trite films. In Little Sister, Addison Timlin plays Colleen, a woman in her early twenties who returns to her childhood home and her troubled, semi-estranged family in order to tie up emotional loose ends before making a major life change. If this were a Cameron Crowe or Zach Braff joint, the protagonist would meet a manic pixie dream person, dance quirkily to indie music, and do something cathartically impulsive, all while falling in love with said pixie. A blow-up with family members would trigger a revelation about her impending life change, and she would rejoin her life-in-progress with renewed hope and a new relationship basket containing all of her eggs.

Fortunately, Zach Clark is neither a Braff nor a Crowe. His protagonist, once a full-fledged Goth, has rebelled against her troubled family by joining a convent. She is only one rite away from cementing her lifetime commitment to God. Because of Colleen’s cultural roots, the soundtrack contains barely an acoustic guitar or crooning sad sack (we’re instead, serenaded with deep cuts from Gwar). Better still, because of Colleen’s vows, there is no manic pixie anyone. Colleen interacts only with her parents, her childhood pal, and her older brother, Jacob (Keith Poulson). Jacob is an Iraq war vet who recently returned home after an explosion disfigured him and fried his lungs. Colleen’s stoner parents are the ones doing most of the drugs…

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Film Int. Review: The Love Witch

You could never accuse writer/director Anna Biller of masking her influences. She has, to date, painstakingly created two films that would fit seamlessly within the sexploitation genre of the 60s and 70s. She follows up her sexual revolution comedy debut, Viva (2007), with The Love Witch, a film that flirts with horror, but still boasts plenty of ‘ploitation of the sexual ilk. The only clues that The Love Witch wasn’t made 60 years ago are the modern cars parked along the street. However, Biller prominently features her protagonists’ vintage automobiles, as well as ensures that every other possible detail is as period accurate as an episode of Mad Men. Trouble is, movies like this have fallen out of favor for a reason. Sure they look great – every frame and outfit makes me long to hit the flea market. But the story is also period accurate in that it peddles a brand of faux-feminism better left in the past. The protagonist is a badass because she isn’t afraid to kill to get what she wants. But what she wants is nothing more than the attention of a man – seemingly any man. You can dismiss these themes in movies from that era because they were playing within the status quo. But we’re better than that now. Maybe not a lot better, but let’s not take two steps back just to be true to the era. I prefer my throwbacks with a dash of modern ideology…

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Hammer to Nail Review: First Girl I Loved

Teenagers get a bad rap for being difficult. And while that’s not a false accusation, it’s also not entirely their fault. They are minutes past being children but suddenly expected to take on a slew of new responsibilities including figuring out what kind of person they want to be, all while attempting to keep their surging hormones at bay. Writer/director Kerem Sanga’s First Girl I Loved is an astoundingly accurate depiction of the agony of first heartbreak for Anne, a teenager who is simultaneously coming to terms with being gay – something that still isn’t as much of a non-issue as it should be.

Anne (Dylan Gelula, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) is a bit of a weirdo but she embraces it. She revels in taking photos for the yearbook and ditching school with her best friend, Cliff (Mateo Arias). Everything gets upended, however, when Anne falls for Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand, Deadpool), the popular star of the school softball team. Anne pretends to interview Sasha for the yearbook as a ruse to meet her. They hit it off and soon are hanging out and texting late into the night. Anne is awash with a cocktail of elation and anxiety; thrilled to have such definitive romantic feelings for someone, but unsure if her love is requited. To complicate matters, when Anne reveals her crush to Cliff, coming out to him in the process, he responds with aggression and jealousy. Much to Anne’s shock and dismay, Cliff’s reaction destroys their friendship and triggers an avalanche of transgressions from all parties within the love triangle…

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Film Int. Review: Phantom Boy

Co-directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol follow up their Oscar nominated film, A Cat in Paris, with Phantom Boy, a film that is perplexingly set in New York City, though everything else about it is as French as can be including the humor and animation style. The script (by Gagnol) tells the story of Leo, an eleven-year-old boy who, afflicted with an unnamed, but serious enough illness to require chemotherapy, learns that he can escape the loneliness of his hospital bed through astral projection for brief stints. When Leo meets Lt. Alex Tanguy (Édouard Baer), an injured police officer with a knack for getting on his boss’s nerves, he uses his power to help ensnare a criminal mastermind who threatens to bring the city to its knees. Phantom Boy is perhaps too simple a story to appeal to all ages, but for children, it is a terrific introduction to heady themes like crime noir and, more importantly, grave illnesses and mortality…

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