Movie Reviews

The Incredible Jessica James (Review)

The Incredible Jessica James

Incredible Jessica James
2017
Written and directed by James C. Strouse

As part of my marathon of SFIFF films, I went from the glacial pacing of Life After Life in a small, cozy venue to a large, packed theater for the energetic and colorful The Incredible Jessica James. Every bit of frame of The Incredible Jessica James oozes color and joy, even through her hardships and struggles. Jessica James opens while on a Tinder date, talking over him and basically explaining he’s there to try to make her ex jealous while she’s spying on him, and that he blew any chance of getting action through a series of early mistakes in their communication.

Jessica James writes plays while collecting rejection letters from various theatrical collegiate programs around the country, but earns a living working for a non-profit doing theater classes with local students. Between jumping into sections of her life, we spend time with her doing exercises with the kids, some of which illuminate her own insecurities and issues growing up. We learn about her parents arguing over money, and Jessica having to choose one to live with during the eventual divorce. Later she returns to Ohio for her sister’s baby shower, she’s obviously uncomfortable returning home and dealing with her mother and step-father (She hasn’t even told them that she broke up with her ex) and with traditional familiar roles the women back home portray. During the baby shower, she gives her sister a baby book for revolutionaries that includes a mention of the singer Peaches, this leads to bemused confusion for the other guests.

Jessica’s actress friend Tasha (Noël Wells) sets her up with her (sort of) friend Boone (Chris O’Dowd), who is also getting over a breakup, but in this case it is a divorce and he’s still at wandering around the neighborhood his ex-wife lives in while she and her new boyfriend watch him from the window. Boone and Jessica set up a pack to unfollow their own exes from social media and follow each others, thay way they can send updates when something important is happening but not obsess over them. Both coming from areas of pain, they connect more than either of them expects to considering how opposite they are. Chris O’Dowd is his usual lovable self, while Noël Wells is amazingly delightful as Jessica’s friend who is dealing with the same lofty dream job problems yet somehow seems way more confident despite experiencing the same struggles.

Jessica James’ insecurities are the heart of the matter. Her plays are what she loves doing, but she’s not experienced what she would consider success. Jessica meets her idol, Sarah Jones, who shares that even with her successes, that doesn’t mean anything as far as long term security, it’s all about doing what you love doing. Jessica James appears confident and powerful while dancing through the opening credits, proclaiming how dope she is while arguing with Boone, and working to convince her students to go to a writers’ retreat, but sometimes it takes an extra kick to use that confidence in the parts of life that need it the most.

The Incredible Jessica James is a vehicle written entirely for Jessica Jones after writer/director James C. Strouse worked with her on People Places Things. While he wrote it, he would meet with her regularly to discuss things and get her input. As he mentioned during the director Q & A after the show, Jessica James is a combination of himself and Jessica Jones (including combining their names). It’s hard to picture anyone else in this role. The Incredible Jessica James is great fun, full of witty humor that will leave a smile on your face and warmth in your heart.

SFIFF 2017

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Posted by Tars Tarkas - April 28, 2017 at 10:49 am

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Life After Life (Review)

Life After Life

aka 枝繁叶茂 aka Zhi Fan Ye Mao
Life After Life
2016
Written and directed by Zhang Hanyi
Life After Life
In a desolate landscape wracked by the cruelty of winter, a dying community slated for removal for industrialization is the site of a haunting ghost story. Life After Life presents a world where a wife returns from beyond the grave for a mission of moving a tree that will help guide her soul into her next life. To do so she possesses the body of her young son, and her husband must then embark on her quest.

Life After Life is slow and methodical. The scenes are long takes, the characters pause for long beats between line deliveries, and even the plot takes a while to get going thanks to a series of setbacks and side quests. Ming Chun (Zhang Mingjun) is basically a lost family provider, what is left of his ancestral community is being relocated, his daughter has already moved away to the big city, and his son is frustrated and eager to run off himself. Ming Chun seems like he’s wandering alone, but soon the spirit of his late wife possesses his son, and finally he has a purpose even if her return doesn’t magically turn him energetic.

Son Leilie’s (Zhang Li) entire body language changes when he’s possessed by the spirit of Xiuying. He goes from a confident and angry young make to a soft-spoken and slumped figure, completely transforming into a new character. It’s also obvious as to why Xiuying and Ming Chun were perfect for each other, they both have the same slow personality that gels well. Xiuying needs a tree that they planted as newlyweds moved so it will help her spirit in the afterlife, as strange trees that don’t know you well enough run the risk of assigning you a less ideal new life. Leilie being possessed by Xiuying is accepted without question by everyone they encounter, which helped speed up scenes without reconvincing everyone. Ming Chung and Xiuying even visit Ming Chun’s parents in their next lives, his father is now a dog while his mother is a bird.

The crumbling cave house structures of the old community work with the bleak winter landscape to help strip all color from the frames, only the clothes worn by Leilie seem to have any sort of pop. The community is already the walking dead, but the countryside has preceded it (it’s implied the orchards were poisoned by industrial pollutants). Despite the dawdling pace, there are bits of life and whimsy. We see a giant rock wiggling down the side of the mountain, but it’s not until our heroes drive by it that we see it is because several workers are working the rock downhill via wiggling it with ropes. Later we see Ming Chun and Xiuying moving the tree by a similar method, both bringing to mind mythological tales.
Life After Life
Zhang Hanyi’s debut isn’t for everyone, it’s definitively art house. But it’s really good at doing what it wants to do, capture an eerie landscape and story with echoes of the industrialization of China with the old clashing with the new, presented from a rural slow-paced direction. And as one of our criteria is judging films on if they do what they want to do, Life After Life knocks that out of the park. As much fun as all the slow paced styling is, by the time they were getting around to moving the tree I was already fine with the town being bulldozed over. Life has already passed them by, maybe the moved tree can help the community find their way in the big city, or at least stop pausing for 30 seconds after every sentence. The low energy scenes were in complete contrast with the film I saw directly afterwards at SFIFF, The Incredible Jessica James, which was so full of energy and color and life that it was like cinematic whiplash! But that’s another review…

(I’ll also put in a warning that they show real animals being killed as a goat is killed for dinner, so be warned if you are like me and not into that stuff! Yep, the first two films I saw at SFIFF had dead animals in them, lucky me!)

SFIFF 2017

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Posted by Tars Tarkas - April 27, 2017 at 9:43 am

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The Transfiguration (Review)

The Transfiguration

The Transfiguration
2016
Written and directed by Michael O’Shea
The Transfiguration
I got fists full of sweet, sweet cash and a break between classes and being sick to actually write, so it’s time to go to a bunch of films at the San Francisco International Film Festival! First up is the amazing vampire film, The Transfiguration!

The Transfiguration is about a disturbed teenager that is obsessed with vampires. Milo (Eric Ruffin) is not just obsessed, he lives and breathes vampires. Literally, as he’s started going out and stalking, killing, and drinking the blood of victims once a month. This isn’t a spoiler, he’s doing it in the opening scene. Exactly why he’s started doing this is slowly revealed as the film burns on. We learn more of Milo’s world view, his family tragedies and his harassment by local toughs.

There is no big bad vampire, the monsters are all in the mind, the demons that enslave us all. Milo lives with his adult brother, Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), both alone after their mother’s suicide. Lewis is perpetually on the couch watching television, not because he’s lazy but because he’s just been damaged by life. He used to roll with the gang, but left to go straight and spent time in the military in the Middle East, where he saw things that add to his haunting looks. He does care about his brother, but the only way he knows how to keep him out of trouble is dealing with the gang and the cops, and is completely in the dark about the blood drinking. Aaron Moten is amazing here, conveying someone with so much going on under the hood but still barely functioning because of all the past trauma.

Milo’s regular routine is thrown into a loop when Sophie (Chloe Levine) moves into the complex. Her parents are dead as well, and she’s living with an abusive grandfather. It’s damaged people finding themselves through each other. The more time Milo spends with Sophie, the less time he spends stalking prey and drinking their blood. But Milo knows he’s already gone to far, having a happy ending and normal life isn’t in the cards for him. But maybe he doesn’t have to be doomed to be all bad.
The Transfiguration
The film switches between the budding romantic film with Milo and Sophie and the dark and haunted world of Milo looking for prey, sometimes rapidly shifting gears in an uncomfortable manner. Milo is obviously uncomfortable about Sophie inserting herself into his life, but he also finds himself growing fond of her. And that begins to disturb him. The only topic that Milo is comfortable speaking about is the discussion of said vampire films. Milo rates the vampire films in term of how realistic they are, in that how accurate they are in depicting what he feels true, accurate vampires are. Sophie keeps trying to get him to read Twilight, and makes references to True Blood (which Milo dismisses as unrealistic!) Milo rattling on and on about them to Sophie begins to pull him out of what he is becoming.

Michael O’Shea’s vampire tale changes up the usual game. The vampires are just flavoring, Milo could be obsessed with any horror creature and acting out as them. The journey is Milo’s jump from embracing his vampire life to being offered a different path. The scenes of violence are brutal, but Milo finding himself gives a path of redemption. The Transfiguration is worth the buzz and worth checking out, just don’t expect the usual horror trapping.

(I’ll also put in a warning that they show real animals being killed in clips from the Faces of Death movies, so be warned if you are like me and not into that stuff!)

SFIFF 2017

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Posted by Tars Tarkas - April 26, 2017 at 9:52 pm

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Justice League Dark (Review)

Justice League Dark

Justice League Dark
2017
Story by J.M. DeMatteis and Ernie Altbacker
Screenplay by Ernie Altbacker
Directed by Jay Oliva

Justice League Dark
The animated world is in danger once again (stupid world, stop being in danger!) and only the Justice League can save them. No, not the normal Justice League, this is Justice League Dark! And Batman for some reason. That reason is money. Keep in mind this is Justice League Dark, not Justice League After Dark, that’s the porn version debuting on Cinemax next year! Just kidding. Or am I? Yes.

Now let’s get to an actual review and not string of consciousness awful jokes. Justice League Dark follows the loose continuity the animated films have had since they got rebooted with Flashpoint/Justice League: War, including voices (and Matt Ryan from the Constantine tv series voices John Constantine here!) This time the team isn’t able to handle the threat, as the threat is supernatural in nature, so we need a different kind of hero. Supernatural heroes for a supernatural threat. Mainly John Constantine (of Keanu Reeves movie fame) and Zatanna, the magician lady I’m vaguely familiar with. There are others heroes like Deadman, who I hadn’t really known much about, but a ghost as a super hero does make a certain amount of sense. Maybe Casper should stop being so friendly and start taking down crime syndicates! This time, the ghosts are busting YOU!
Justice League Dark
I enjoyed the change of focus of heroes despite Batman being included so he could grunt every time something spooky happens. (And he does, Gotham City must be showing a lot of Home Improvement reruns) Usually movies like this have a regular guy character who all the characters that are steeped into the universe can explain things too (and thus explain to the audience!), but as Batman already knows a lot of things, he doesn’t really fit that well in the role.
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Posted by Tars Tarkas - March 23, 2017 at 7:53 am

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The Bride He Bought Online (Review)

The Bride He Bought Online

aka Flirting with Madness
The Bride He Bought Online Lifetime
2015
Written and directed by Christine Conradt

The Bride He Bought Online Lifetime

Good thing he never turned around to notice he was obviously being filmed


PRANKED!!! You got so pranked!

Lifetime brings us an amazing tale of pranking gone wrong, internet danger, guy who goes nuts, and teen girls stuffed in trunks! The Bride He Bought Online is pure, concentrated Lifetime amazement that raises the bar for their original movies. It’s not really that much of a surprise, for not only is this a Lifetime movies superstar writer Christine Conradt script, she also directs it! Conradt clearly knew she had to up her game, and blasted past that goal and then some! We can only hope this is the beginning of a new level of awesome flicks!

The Bride He Bought Online Lifetime

How dare you have a basic sense of human decency, what’s wrong with you???


It’s high school, and our trio of main girls are concerned with what everyone in high school is concerned with, views on their secret pranking website! Wait, huh? We’ve entered the world of internet prank videos, a genre that has flourished on YouTube despite the fact most of them are terrible and/or totally fake. But, sure, whatever you want to watch is your business, TarsTarkas.NET can’t really judge based on some of the films we’ve reviewed!

Avery Lindstrom (Anne Winters) is the nice girl who is so done with pranking and is thinking about her future, she also serves as a bookend narrator. Mandy Kim (Lauren Gaw) once was overweight and unpopular, but is now part of the cool squad and desperately wants to stay there. She is starting to have some moral objections to the non-stop pranks, but let’s Kaley push her around. Kaley Mack (Annalisa Cochrane) is attractive, popular, and is the driving force behind the secret prank website. She’s the reason the other two are popular at school, and schemes up the latest and greatest pranks in her quest for social media love.

“We need content. Content equals followers.” – Mandy
“And followers equals?” -Avery
“Everything!” – Kaley

The Bride He Bought Online Lifetime

Look, I’m beyond pranks now that I’m wearing a beanie


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Posted by Tars Tarkas - March 20, 2017 at 7:58 am

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Cardinal X (Review)

Cardinal X

Cardinal X
2017
Written and directed by Angie Wong
Cardinal X
Back in the 1980s, much of the MDMA in the Bay Area came from a surprising source – a college student making it herself. The story is even largely true, with certain events and people amalgamated together and switched around for dramatic effect. But Angie Wang is real, she did make drugs while at Stanford, and survived to write and directed this autobiographical tale called Cardinal X

Angie Wang (Annie Q.) travels from New Jersey to not-Stanford to begin college, and her wild side lets her live a fun life. She immediately bonds with her roommate and they are soon partying it up at night and taking classes all day. There is trouble behind the scenes, her dad can’t afford the tuition, and Angie can’t escape flashbacks to tragic events in her life such as family discord and sexual assaults. Angie is smart, and quickly sees a need for a supplier in MDMA in the local party scene, and thanks to a new job as a lab assistant and a loophole in the law, she’s soon manufacturing a pile of pills to bring in extra money. We all know this is going to spiral out of control, so hang on for the ride!

Angie sees herself as broken, beyond the rape and assaults, her mother left her with her father when she was young, and her father was always working and emotionally distant. He is constantly worried about money. Angie internalizes the bad things that happened to her in life and her wild party behavior, thinking she’s too flawed to be with anyone normal. Nice guy Tommy (Scott Keiji Takeda) befriends her during the first few weeks of school, and she even spends part of a holiday with his normal, happy family. It’s just too much, she thinks she can’t have that life, that she’s too messed up to deserve it, and quickly leaves. That’s why Angie connects so well with her roommate, Jeanine (Francesca Eastwood), she appears to come from a nice, upper class family, but that hides her mom’s drinking and non-stop insults, causing her to escape via chemical means, as well as cutting and bulimia.
Cardinal X
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Posted by Tars Tarkas - March 11, 2017 at 6:59 pm

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