Review: The Incredible Jessica James (2017)

The Mediocre Jessica Williams

Courtesy of Essence

A year or two before Jon Stewart stepped down from The Daily Show in 2015 he was visibly not as sharp as he was in for the previous decade he fronted the program that he transformed into one of the best US contemporary political TV satires. Several of his greatest correspondents including Stephen Colbert, Jason Jones, Wyatt Cenac, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee were long gone and doing their own things.

In a group of mostly ho hum supporting talent, Jessica Williams, an acerbic millennial 6-foot black woman, was clearly the audience favorite. She had so much goodwill that several Daily Show launched campaigns for her to replace Stewart. Many went berserk when Trevor Noah got the job. I was never on the Jessica Williams bandwagon; I found her segments lacking in originality and the faux-bemused straight-talking shtick always fell a bit flat on delivery.

In spite of my bias against Williams, I wanted to like her newest movie, The Incredible Jessica James. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that this wasn’t going to be the movie for me. Writer-director Jim Strouse, who cast Williams in a supporting role in his 2015 indie film People Places Things, was captivated by her and felt that she needed her own vehicle.

Courtesy of Okayplayer.com

In Jessica James, Williams plays a 25-year-old aspiring playwright in a creative and personal funk after a break-up with her ex (Lakeith Stanfield). Watching Williams headline a 90-minute feature, I had a clearer picture of why I am not a fanboy. Towards the end of the film, James’ sort of love interest (Chris O’Dowd), who binged read her plays, remarked that her body of work reveals her complexity as a person.

The problem is, we don’t see James’ multifaceted personality because Williams doesn’t show it to us. For the most part Williams is replicating her Daily Show persona. Her character is intended to be intelligent and prickly, in part due to her frustration of being an unproduced playwright. We get that. The problem is Williams is incredibly guarded and unapproachable which makes it very difficult to be invested in her character. She’s poker-faced, but she’s not droll and there’s no mystery lurking beneath.

On The Daily Show, Williams preached to the choir. In Jessica James, she talks down to the audience. The only scenes Williams seemed to halfway enjoy performing are when she berates characters who don’t share her supposedly contradictory profound insights, such as her tinder date who isn’t romantically sexually aggressive enough or a suburban mom at her sister’s baby shower who is befuddled by James’ revisionist feminist children’s book.

Courtesy of The Guardian

Williams is unconvincing at showing the warmer side of her character, the one that encompasses a sister-like friendship with a struggling actress (Noel Wells) and a job as a drama instructor for underprivileged youth. These subplots are particularly ponderous to watch with their lack of charm and a sense that they’re more obligatory than organic.

The obsessive emphasis on Williams creates a large vacuum for the rest of the film. Chris O’Dowd, who shares the most scenes with Williams is particularly constrained. O’Dowd, who excels at goofy, broad comedy (his work in the brilliant sitcom The IT Crowd is excellent), visibly struggles with his dour character, an App developer who isn’t over his ex-wife but has feelings for James. It doesn’t help that he and Williams have no chemistry (it should be noted that Williams doesn’t convincingly interact with anybody).

The only source of amusement comes from nightmare sequences where James’ ex confronts her at unexpected places and aggressively corners her about their break up before being killed by a large, random object.

Courtesy of Heavy

Stanfield’s was the only mildly interesting performance, a big feat considering that his is a hodge podge abstract role with little screen time. With the charismatic twinkle in his eyes, he is personable and vivacious, unlike the rest of the film which is frigid and stiff. You can see why he is in demand.

A friend who watched Jessica James thought it would work better as a TV show. Considering how popular Williams is and how gung ho Netflix is in making TV series and how TV is as much of a cesspool for remakes as movies and Broadway these days, it’s entirely plausible that a TV version could materialize. If it does, I’ll skip it.

Interview: Jason Fisher Writer-Director-Producer

Making movies isn’t for the easily discouraged. Ask Jason Fisher who is about 250 drafts into a feature film script that he’s been revising and revising for the past 20 years.

The screenplay was inspired by a colleague (who I’ll call “Jamal”) with whom Fisher worked at Pizza Hut at Cincinnati. They had a cordial relationship on the job, which organically developed into a friendship. One day Jamal told Fisher that one day he would reveal what brought him to Cincinnati. At the time Fisher thought it would be something along the lines of a bad break up.

Jamal’s confession was a bombshell, and one that immediately got Fisher’s creative wheels spinning. He told Fisher that he grew up in an impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood and got involved in the drug ring transporting drugs from Brooklyn to Ohio. One day, he got busted, though comparatively speaking, he got lucky. “Had they caught me like 24 hours before, I wouldn’t be speaking to you today, because I had way more [drugs]. I took the first plea bargain they offered [which was 2 years in prison].”

Fisher’s script approaches this subject from the point of view of “an average middle man…who isn’t making millions of dollars…how [most] likely if you stay in it long enough, eventually, it’s going to be your turn to get caught.”

Although Fisher has always loved films and filmmaking, it wasn’t always the dream goal. He initially pursued what he thought was a more realistic career in college, sports management. It didn’t stick. This would be the case with most of his majors. In the midst of his indecisiveness, he met a woman involved with local theater who thought he had acting potential and invited him to audition for upcoming productions.

He didn’t click with the material. “I had this one audition” he remembered “I was playing a waiter who was a male, or not a male… or androgynous? It was some sort of comedy.” Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get the part. “I believe I was not yet confident enough as an actor, nor mature enough to handle the material, but today I think producing a project like that would be hilarious” he added.

“I was living in a house with a lot of friends and whining about the plays which were either the classics or this off the wall stuff. They said, ‘you have a lot of good ideas. Why don’t you start writing.’”

He took their advice. Early on, he knew he wanted to write for films, not theatre. Like all aspiring filmmakers, Fisher did trek out to LA, though he didn’t stay long. He realized that not only were industry jobs competitive, but all jobs were highly competitive. This made paying the rent a real problem.

Next stop, Vegas. Not knowing anybody, he figured he try to connect with fellow writers via Craig’s List. The response rate was high, and he eventually formed a writers group, which remains a tight knit community. When Fisher was ready to take the plunge into making a movie, a cinematographer of note reached out to him and offered to shoot it.

A.K.A The Surgeon, a 25 minute action short was initially conceived as a modest low-budget one or two day shoot. While filming, Fisher decided to rev up the scale- increasing the budget, the shoot time to 20 days (over a year and a half), and 18 locations. He is grateful that he had “the courage and stubbornness” to go the “mini feature” route because it was a closer simulation to the logistics and budgeting of making a feature.

Although Fisher made a lot of contacts and projects in Vegas, he eventually gravitated towards Georgia because its East Coast culture and weather was more similar his home state of Ohio. Naturally I asked if he was optimistic about Georgia’s ability to sustain itself as a filming hub. He is.

What about the fact that most of the people down to the caterers are transplants from New York and LA and that very few people working on sets are Georgia residents? Fisher admits that is a problem and that most of the people attached in his upcoming projects are non-Georgians (though he does have a few locals in the Atlanta and Athens area on his team).

He plans to include Georgians on the action, including the possibility of shooting films in Athens and Atlanta. But “the thing is I need to get a cast and crew that have some sort of track record to go with mine – mine’s not strong enough by itself.” Fisher is working very hard to up his street cred. A script he co-wrote was a semifinalist at the well-known Slamdance screenplay competition. Another was optioned by Paramount. He has involved himself with several projects in various capacities. The scale of the projects vary too from the micro budget art movie Crossing Flowers Motel to a higher budget, popcorn action flick Bounty Hunter (which has had nibbles from fairly famous actors).

Producing is a natural fit for Fisher who has been a manager at various companies for several years. He is no stranger to the hectic duties of coordinating with loads of admin, overseeing lots of different departments and ensuring maximum cost effective productivity. One of his most arduous, but rewarding stints was at a sheet metal manufacturing firm. “Each quarter (three months) was the equivalent of a feature” Fisher remembers.

At one point Fisher’s company bosses were frantic about fulfilling a large order with a looming deadline and a relatively small operation. Fisher found the solution by delving into the frugal filmie side of his brain. Instead of overtime, he proposed staggering shifts where half the workers would take a break while the other half continued working so that parts continually moved throughout the day. During his tenure there, the company’s revenue went from $5 million to $15 million.

Fisher has seen several of his friends and colleagues take indefinite hiatuses or leave the film scene altogether. Why hasn’t he given up too? “I love it too much.” He pauses briefly. “While I’ve run into frustrations, I continue to go at it because I keep thinking, OK, I trained myself all these years to get from one mountain range to another one and another one and all I can see in the horizon is more mountain ranges.” He adds, “What if I’m really close? And I think I am.”

UPDATE 31 AUG 2017. An earlier edition of the article stated the sheet metal company’s profit’s went from $5 to $15 million. Those figures were actually the revenue.

News & Views: Tina Fey and The Satire Backlash

The tragic death of anti-racist protestor Heather Heyer at the hands of a white nationalist in Charlottesville has naturally sparked anger, fear, and despair towards the reemergence of old school apple pie pernicious American racism.

Tina Fey, a graduate of UVA, the school that was the epicenter of the carnage, did a widely viewed segment where she denounced the KKK and other white nationalist groups via a sheet cake which she savagely devoured over the course of six-minutes.

It was a big hit with many viewers. But it royally pissed off others. Several commentators found her stance to reek of a 21st century Marie Antoinette-esque white privilege.

Quite frankly, I find the backlash is overwrought, like much of the commentary about satire these days. There has been a trove of bizarre think pieces, such as an article in The Atlantic that argue that satire is responsible for Donald Trump and anti-intellectualism. This is a patently ridiculous assertion because satire doesn’t cause events, it responds to things already taking place. This means that the argument that Tina Fey’s parody of Sarah Palin made her unelectable is just as false as the declaration that Fey’s current segment is an anti-activist screed.

Another thing I admired about the segment is that it tackled satire from a different angle. Usually satire is a complete and total mockery of a public figure, often somebody in a position of power (although with reality TV and 24-hr entertainment cable news “power” is a bit more relative). In Fey’s segment, Trump’s dickishness in refusing to disavow white supremacists is a large butt of the joke, but she also deftly interweaves the helplessness that the average disgruntled feels in these turbulent times. She brilliantly used the cake as both a prop for fantastic physical humor but also as a symbolism of catharsis of sorts.

Many of her critics fault her segment for being too shallow and light. These articles instead praise responses by Late Night hosts Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon, whose monologues take on a somber tone and denounce #45 as a totally immoral, hate mongering man unfit to be President. Their points are valid, but they also state the obvious. It doesn’t do anybody any favors to recast comedians as morality gatekeepers when comedy by nature is about subverting rules and expectations. I think Fey invoked the wrath she did because she was willing to go for the jugular when a situation was still raw. I have been frustrated with many comedians who are almost waiting for Godot when it comes to delivering their take on tragic current events. We look to them for a thoughtful, humorous slant.

There is a wrongheaded, but increasingly popular idea that anything that counters your views is not only wrong, but must be stopped in its tracks. On a British panel show Jack Dee’s Help Desk, which pokes fun at the televised Q&A town halls between public figures and normal people (yes the UK and Australia have those shows for real), there was a special episode aired after the US Presidential Election. Naturally, the audience and the panel of comedians were a little more rattled than usual and many of the questions and answers had a lot of anxiety wrapped up in tongue and cheek humor.

One young woman casually asked (at about 17:45) “how can I ensure that people only tell me things I agree with?” Her rationale was if politicians could cherry pick truths, she should be able too. Sara Pascoe quickly pointed out that cleansing the world was a “slippery slope.” Romesh Ranganathan remarked that Brexit was a shock to many because they surrounded themselves with people who shared their views. He suggested that she “cut off people who agree with her” and only follow people who disagree with her so that “when you leave the house, you think, oh everybody’s not an asshole.” Taken aback by the passionate responses, she remarked “it’s turning a bit more serious than I intended.”

Absolutely, the facts matter. That is why we need more satire, not less, to cleverly and humorously shine a spotlight on and compete with the insanity and evil in the world. If we don’t, Trump and the other loonies will have a total monopoly on the absurd.

Review: Night Job (2017)

Courtesy of @NightJobMovie

Editors and sound technicians typically don’t get the praises that directors, writers, and actors do because their contributions are to highlight the action on the screen. While actors and directors tend to have ups and downs before eventually falling out of favor, many of the top editors and sound people tend to amass hundreds of credits over several decades. This has to do with the consistency they bring to their craft. Perhaps more than anybody, they are responsible for giving the movies the major seamless factor that audiences crave.

You really appreciate how much a great editor and sound department add when one or both of these elements aren’t good. Unfortunately in the new indie film, Night Job, both the editing and sound are severely lackluster throughout. Several stretches where the last syllables of words are snipped off or where whole sentences are MIA make the amateurishness painfully obvious.

One of the principals of editing is to trim the banality of everyday life and focus on the extraordinary. The filmmakers of Night Job took that rule too literally. They employ a consistent, but arbitrary pseudo jump cut (but it’s too sloppy and undisciplined to be accurately called jump cuts) motif of snipping out characters walking from one part of the lobby to another. Not only is this the most jarring element, it brings the most attention to Night Job’s biggest failure; it’s a sluggish bore. Night Job only runs for 82 minutes, but the low energy directing and bland, talky script make it feel like a grueling 8 hour school day.

Courtesy of @NightJobMovie

In an early scene the protagonist James, a temp doorman/receptionist in a NYC apartment complex on his first night who is already bored and disillusioned with the job, and a man who works as a night shift doorman in another building discuss the skeeviness that is more rampant in the evening. “Why do you think things get crazier at night?” James asks. “People just use the night to become someone different.”

Although several characters whine about craziness, not enough craziness transpires on screen. When I lived in the North East, I enjoyed people watching because I found many Yankees wonderfully expressive and idiosyncratic even when they were curt and testy. There were several instances where Night Job seemed like it would delve into the interesting dynamic between customers and a service industry worker where either party might hesitate for a millisecond or come on too strongly, setting off the other who starts shouting, causing the other person to sass back for a heated (yet bizarrely humorous) back and forth.

Instead, James’ encounters with a revolving cast of slightly neurotic characters follow a staid track, and he never truly gets sucked in the drama. Nobody hurls any abuse at him, which is perhaps the most improbable element in this film, because people in the service industry are punching bags. Actually, the characters are too restrained and polite; it’s hard to achieve comedy from (relatively) good manners.

Courtesy of @NightJobMovie

Every now and again, there are references about the previous doorman, who a character early on warns James was into some sketchy dealings with homeless people. Presumably this is important to the plot and could have been a source for black humor, but this storyline is so haphazardly applied and is only memorable for the fact that it results in one of the most amateurishly choreographed fight scenes I have ever seen. (It fares badly even by home movie standards).

When I interviewed several film professionals about their pet peeves in modern movies, a program director emphatically stated that shooting movies in black and white for no apparent reason put her off most. Movies like Night Job make me see her point. The black and white cinematography (which I assume is supposed to signify James’ humdrum and mildly depressing life) is not only arbitrary, but also is aesthetically wrong for this film. The mise en scene of the lobby is shiny, industrial, clean, and modern; in short, antithetical to the shadowy, claustrophobic film noir imagery that the cinematography is trying to invoke.

One tiny thing working in the filmmakers’ favor is their restraint in using the musical score (which is not good, but not awful) in an era where many films (even some good films) overburden the audience with a soundtrack, hoping it will act as life support for a lifeless story.

If you want more info on Night Job, click here.

Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty and the Beast: A modern adaptation of a Tale as Old as Time

By Heather Nichols, Tawfik Zone Contributor

Courtesy of Disney Movies UK

If your peer group is anything like mine, odds are you’ve heard some very mixed reviews about the latest Disney live action adaptation of Beauty and The Beast. I’ll preface by saying if you’re curious please go watch the film because I’m going to break the entire thing down which involves potentially spoiling it.

I have to say there are some things that the film did right and there were some choices made that derailed it. That’s why I’m going to break it all down and as you’ll see I’m really on the fence about this one. A good attempt, but maybe they would be better off if it wasn’t a musical? Anyway here we go…

We’ll start with the opening scene. The live action version has the same backstory as the 1991 animated version, but expands it further. We open with the Prince, who the studio still won’t tell us his name is Adam (seriously they never say it out loud). Anyway the Prince is being made up as fabulous as glam-era David Bowie for a big soiree.

Courtesy of trailers.apple.com

We start with an original opening number which really didn’t do it for me, I’d much rather it just be a grandiose Viennese waltz as the lyrics were distracting and overall just not very good. So we sit through a minute of that before the enchantress shows up and you already know how that goes down. Then the film does something I really liked. They explain the outlines of this curse because the one thing that always bothered me in the original no one knew who the Prince was even though the castle is clearly within walking distance. So there, mystery solved they’re all cursed.

We cut to the village and meet Belle. (I can forgive for the lightly auto tuned singing because I actually really enjoyed how she is portrayed). But the musical sequence for the song “Belle”, oh dear god how could they ruin that? The original cartoon version gives us so much of Belle’s character in this sequence- the fact that her house is just far enough away from the village and that she’s the only person wearing blue really establish her as an outsider – here, her home is stuck right up in there and practically 60% of the cast is wearing blue.

However a few things that worked well, Belle wearing boots to work in as opposed to flats give her a more practical look as she is working on a farm and the flats would get shredded. Also nice, they have added in a couple of scenes to show Belle’s inventiveness as well as a scene where she’s teaching a young girl to read. I think these scenes just solidify her as a good role model which is what made the women of the Disney Renaissance stand out from the early era princesses.

Courtesy of Cinema Thread

Little things about the village bothered me. The Bimbettes who fawn over Gaston look awful. I get it, it’s a kid’s movie but they just look like porcelain dolls and they have the worst costuming in the whole film. To me it just didn’t look good, but maybe it works for other people. As for Gaston, Luke Evans is clearly a tenor and Gaston was originally a baritone so he just didn’t… wait for it… hit the right note for me. Seriously I did not like his singing or Josh Gad’s as Lefou, and I like Josh Gad, but every time he sang it was like listening to the snowman from Frozen all over again.

I’m also on the fence with Maurice, Belle’s father. Nothing bad about Kevin Kline’s acting, it’s just Maurice was this slightly eccentric inventor and this characterization is not that. He’s a man still grieving over his wife so overall he has a somber tone. Nothing about him would make him less trustworthy to the villagers which is why the town siding with Gaston to lock him away doesn’t make sense to me in this version. But first, I have some things I actually really enjoyed about the film.

Courtesy of www.cinemag.gr

Visually stunning, the animation was great especially on Cogsworth and I personally think Ewan McGregor steals the show as Lumiere. They also made a nod to the original fairy tale where Maurice gets into trouble for trying to acquire a rose for Belle- something that didn’t make it into the animated version but is present in the silent French film. One thing I was sad to see missing was the song “Human Again” which was originally missing but made its way back into the animated film after its original release because they had run out of budget for it in 1991. Instead we get a song, “Days in the Sun,” which made me want to barf, it was that bad.

Another strength the film has is it really builds on the relationship between Belle and the Beast. It feels more like the two are connecting because of that added backstory and the added interaction. It also helps that the two actually end up having shared interests. The costuming was great; I like how the Beast’s wardrobe becomes less animalistic and torn as he begins to embrace his humanity. Belle’s gown is just amazing.

The ballroom scene though has a couple things I found less than agreeable. For one I love Emma Thompson’s acting, but I did not enjoy her singing at all. If James Earl Jones is coming back for the Lion King I don’t understand why Angela Lansbury couldn’t just dub the singing. The other thing was the camera work… oh yes I hadn’t mentioned it until now but there were times where someone needed to slap those cameramen. Issues with focusing, too much blur, too much motion- it was nauseating. Especially in the library, likely there are no actual books to focus on but making a giant blur of stuff with no object in focus just made it so much worse.

Courtesy of www.harpersbazaar.com

Now the big beef most people had was the Beast’s big solo number, “Evermore,” an original, but really clunky song that is in the scene where Belle rides off to save her father from the villagers who are all standing in line to give Gaston a hand- shake. Gaston’s evilness is more subtle in the animated feature. Here he is as subtle as your car alarm going off at 4am on a Saturday and your neighbor pounding your door to get your butt out of bed.

We’re near the climax. Gaston pulls out a flintlock pistol which is proper for the time period. The thing is he fires 3 rounds and it was too quick to be realistic because he’s in the dark and there’s just no way he could have done it that fast, unless he’s got extra guns in his belt but that wouldn’t make sense since he rushed to collect this one after it was dropped.

Then the Beast turns back into the Prince. I can’t help but feel he was more attractive as the beast which is weird because Dan Stevens isn’t an unattractive actor but the make up just makes him look so, eww. Kinda like he’s trying to cosplay Lestat from Interview with the Vampire and used too much baby powder. Fun trivia for you, the Beast is reading King Arthur in one scene and Dan Stevens plays Sir Lancelot in Night at the Museum 3, I thought that was pretty meta. (On a side note, Night is not a fantastic movie but it’s a lot of fun if you haven’t seen it yet and it was Robin William’s final role.)

This review wouldn’t be complete without discussing some of the alleged controversy. So odds are if you’ve seen the news or turned on a computer in the last 30 days you’ve heard that Disney was proud to have its first gay character coming to terms with their sexuality and even have a love scene featured in the major film… except the problem is they totally don’t and there totally isn’t.

Courtesy of Are You Screening?

The character in question is Lefou; I wasn’t totally on board with making him gay but I wasn’t opposed to it. I figure if you’re going to have representation it should be a more positive character or at least one who is more prevalent in the film. In the cartoon Lefou is just Gaston’s little lackey who does some of the dirty work. The way it was pitched was Lefou is supposed to realize that his admiration for Gaston is actually attraction and that he truly wants to be with him… yeah maybe in a different movie but certainly not in this one. I don’t sense any sexual or romantic desire.

During the raid on the castle there’s a scene where the wardrobe attacks and three men end up fully made up wearing dresses and one of them seems to like it as he offers the camera a wink. At the end of the film this man is seen dancing with Lefou at a ball. There’s no alleged love scene- no kissing, not even a gentle caressing, nothing! If that’s what we’re calling a ground breaking moment for LBGTQ community then I’m calling bologna. I’m honestly not sure which upsets me more- the fact the advertisements were pandering, the fact that these occurrences got the film banned in certain theaters, or the fact that this was a poor excuse for diversity in film.

In sum I guess the best way to describe 2017’s Beauty and the Beast is this… imagine a beautiful tiered cake, it’s got gorgeous frosting work and the cake is super delicious and moist but on top you have all this decorative crap that you can’t eat and inside they’ve filled the damn thing with potpourri which smells lovely but isn’t edible. They took a good source material and buggered it up with all this extra unnecessary stuff. I only hope that the fact that’ve made the executive decision to not make the live action Mulan a musical will only help them focus on telling a better and more cinematic story.