A mess of a woman: Jessica Jones

A version of this review was published in The Charlatan on Dec. 2, 2015.

Working in the pits of Hell’s Kitchen in New York as a private
investigator, Jessica Jones, played by Krysten Ritter, gets through life by working on cases of scumbag cheaters and liars that come through her door.

Quitting the superhero business after a traumatic experience with a supervillain, Jessica has a million skeletons in the closet, getting by and dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder through booze, sarcasm, and a mountain of self-loathing.

But everything changes for her when one of those skeletons—a charismatic psychopath with mind control powers named Kilgrave (David Tennant)—crashes back into her life, forcing Jessica to face her darkest trauma in a dangerous game of cat and mouse.

Released on Netflix on Nov. 21, Jessica Jones is one series out of the Marvel Defenders series, alongside Daredevil, that Marvel Studios plans on releasing through Netflix. With Jessica Jones, viewers get to see Marvel’s dark side.

Jessica is no noble, conquering heroine; rather, she is more of an antihero, someone who struggles to care about others as she works through her own inner demons. And Ritter portrays this inner conflict excellently, giving Jessica a combination of hard-edged world-weariness and wry, dark humour throughout the series.

Kilgrave is the charismatic, evil foil to Jessica’s hard-boiled, cynical personality. He is chillingly compelling; while he’s utterly nefarious in using his powers, certain episodes compel viewers to pity him. Tennant’s performance is manipulative in of itself; Tennant perfectly captures Kilgrave’s malevolence while still weaving a dangerous likeability about him. It’s a complete turnaround for an actor who’s best known as the noble 10th Doctor from Doctor Who, yet Tennant pulls off a villainous performance fantastically.

In addition to the brilliant dynamic between Jessica and Kilgrave, the show’s supporting characters are also well developed and performed. Mike Colter’s Luke Cage has (literally) superpowered romantic chemistry with Ritter’s Jessica. Rachael Taylor gives a strong performance as Trish Walker, Jessica’s strong-willed best friend and adopted sister, a character who could easily have her own show. The Matrix’s Carrie-Anne Moss is Hogarth, a cold-blooded lawyer with manipulative tendencies who tackles Jessica’s run-ins with the law during her chase after Kilgrave.

In some episodes, the plot wears a little thin with some developments feeling a little contrived. But the show more than makes up for weak plotlines by its amazing character writing. Jessica Jones’ well-paced cinematography is also impeccable, casting New York in a wonderfully gritty light.

Jessica Jones shows the seedy underbelly of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Notwithstanding the fact that the series is based on Marvel’s first mature-rated comic book series, the show deals with dark themes, not shying away from showing effects and situations of mental, emotional and physical abuse. This series can be triggering in its emotional realism, and it’s definitely not for the fainthearted. All 13 episodes are a heart-pounding roller coaster of violence, fast-paced action, and emotions.

At the heart of Jessica Jones is a profound, powerful story of survivor-hood. Underneath the action and plot, Jessica Jones reveals the ugliness of being a victim of a manipulative and abusive relationship: the insecurities, the deep emotional scars, and the incessant self-doubt. In Jessica’s world, the trauma she suffered from Kilgrave isn’t something that she can just conquer; it’s something she deals with every day. There is no clear future of hope, forgiveness, or reconciliation for Jessica, but there is survival, and as the show progresses, she learns survival isn’t something you can do alone, and viewers learn this along with her.

Overall, Jessica Jones is worth the binge-watch. Fans of the MCU will not be disappointed with its tie-ins with other MCU characters. Even so, it’s a worthwhile series to watch even if you’re not a Marvel fan.

 

Subtlety & Sarcasm at its Finest: Dear White People

In an age of militant political correctness, Justin Simien’s independent cinematic dwp posterdebut Dear White People (DWP) is a defining film for the millennial generation. The fictional campus of elite Winchester University gets entangled into a debacle of racial tension and politics when the school’s resident humour magazine hosts an offensive Halloween party. Tessa Thompson of Veronica Mars plays raging biracial activist and filmmaking student Sam White, and Everybody Hates Chris’ Tyler James Williams stars as reserved sophomore and unlikely hero Lionel Higgins.

Inspired by various cases of notorious “blackface” parties at universities across America, DWP directly addresses the racial issues and tensions underlying Western culture today in the sarcastic, absurdist tone so familiar to students living in the age of the Internet. With witty dialogue and clean-cut cinematography, DWP delivers hard-hitting lessons about cultural identity and racial misconceptions.

Yet, unlike most films about racism, there are no inspirational montages of underdog triumph or devastating bursts of racist rage in DWP. Rather, you get a few outrageous laughs and varying feelings of uneasiness as DWP moves from beginning to end. The film is meant to unsettle its viewers, not blare out a moral-of-the-story, and it does so excellently, without pomp and circumstance. When a character tells Lionel, “You’re only technically black,” it’s unnerving, and you’re not altogether sure why. And most of DWP’s moral questions stem simply from these one-liners that throw your perspective off-kilter.

DWP’s strength is in its subtle revelations, notably emphasized in the character development portrayed by Thompson’s and Williams’ performances. Thompson’s character Sam struggles to deal with her dual identity as a bi-racial woman, and Williams’ Lionel continuously ponders the “black culture” missing from his identity as a black student—inner conflicts not commonly portrayed in mainstream Hollywood movies.

Ultimately, Dear White People is satire done right; it provokes discussion and, without being preachy, teaches lessons about the state of racism in today’s century.

This review was originally published here: http://www.charlatan.ca/2015/01/film-review-dear-white-people/

Teen Empowerment & Mock Trial Justice: The Mockingbirds


Mockingbirds
 was partially inspired by Whitney’s love for the timeless classic To Kill a Mockingbird and her own experiences in college. It follows the story of Alex Patrick, a junior student of Themis Academy who is striving to become an excelling pianist good enough to attend Juillard School. She is shattered when, one night, she is date-raped by a boy at her school. Not wanting to go to the willfully ignorant school administration, she decides to go to the Mockingbirds, an underground council of students dedicated to bringing justice to the student population.

I commend Daisy Whitney for an excellent first novel. The way she wrote out the perspective of a date rape victim was great although some aspects of Alex’s voice I found to be a little unrealistic/not believable. Actually, the premise of Mockingbirds, from the justice system being run by high school students to the ‘trials’ (just a little spoiler!), requires the reader to suspend the reality of high school life just a bit, particularly when it is continually reinforced that Themis is a ‘progressive’ school. However, the procedure of the Mockingbirds in dealing with the issues and problems of the school was fascinating to read through. Alex’s way of dealing with what happened to her would not necessarily be completely true for most victims in the real world, but she has a hopeful outlook that may be uplifting for readers.

Mockingbirds is an empowering novel for teenagers, most of whom often feel powerless themselves when dealing with family, peers, or school. It is a feel-good novel bent on reinforcing the ideas of social justice, just like Atticus Finch did for Scout and Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Films, Food, and Frenching: Anna and the French Kiss

ImageImagine being whisked away, not by choice, to a boarding school in a strange city. You don’t speak a word of the native language, and all you know about the place is what you’ve seen in movies and TV shows. You get to spend your last year of high school in this strange place. This is Anna and the French Kiss, a witty teen romance written by Stephanie Perkins. Thanks to her father, she is enrolled at the School of America in Paris for her last year of high school. It is the last thing she expects and wants. Lost in the City of Lights, experiencing culture shock and homesickness, Anna meets Etienne St. Clair, a fellow student, and instant romantic interest. But what to do, what to do; St. Clair is taken. Yet the chemistry between the two is unmistakable. Will Anna find love in the most romantic city in the world?

As far as chick lit goes, Anna and the French Kiss was not too bad. It reads like the premise for a super-romantic chick flick; after all, love and romance in the city of Paris? It’s inevitable. The conversations and interactions between Etienne and Anna were just too cute. Like, TOO CUTE. Like, so cute, I felt like puking kittens and puppies. All the witty banter and dashing escapades were a little over the top, but very adorable nonetheless; I’ll admit it–I ate it all up like ice cream. The inside cover presents the premise of their romantic endeavours as “a year of romantic near-misses”. How very true. The conflicts encountered between characters were typical of teenage drama, and at times, I could not comprehend why some instances were so drastic; various conflicts seemed forced, as to throw in random factors to complicate the story. But Perkins gets points for the witty dialogue betwixt characters. The characters played out somewhat like a teenage Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. They were quirky and fun, but could have developed a little more substance, even Anna, who could have been any generic chick flick lead.

However, as thoroughly enjoyable as it was, Anna and the French Kiss does not pack the meat and potatoes of good literature. Anna and the French Kiss is through and through a teen chick lit romance novel. You cannot dive into it expecting deep themes and heavy conflicts. It is the stuff of post-break-up coping and comfort food. This novel was as sweet as crême brulée and as light as a croissant. And speaking of French references, the major plus of this book was the fantastic details and descriptions of Parisian culture and life. Anna’s perspective as an American girl living in Paris gave great insight into living as a stranger in a strange (but wonderful) place. There are some funny moments where Anna experiences culture shock, but she embraces life in Paris, and after reading her story, you’ll want to do the same. Overall, Anna and the French Kiss is as much about falling in love with a place as it is about falling in love with a person. It is a sweet, funny, light story.

(On a side note: I apologize for the food references; I was a little hungry.)

A Romance of Mix Tapes, Comic Books, and Awkward Bus Rides: Eleanor & Park

Eleanor&ParkNostalgic, sweet, and heartbreaking, Eleanor and Park, set in 1986, recounts the romance of two misfits. When Eleanor, the big, fiery-haired new girl happens to sit next to Park, a quiet misfit with a love for punk rock, on the bus, their first meeting as awkward bus mates gradually blossoms into a star-crossed love story of mix tapes, first kisses, and comic books. The novel is told between alternating points of view: Eleanor and Park.

 

Rowell did an excellent job of creating characters that the reader bonds with very well. It was so easy to imagine Park and Eleanor, in both appearance and personality, as actual people. Both were far from being Mary Sues; they were poignant portraits of angsty, confused teenagers. Although the book focused on their love story, by giving them distinct narrative voices, either could hold out in their own separate novels. The plot could have focused on how Eleanor deals with being bullied and having an abusive stepfather. It could easily have focused on Park: his confusion about his identity and his struggle with pleasing his father. And yet as the plot thickens, you can’t imagine Park without Eleanor or Eleanor without Park.

 

Admittedly, the mushiness of their relationship sometimes overpowered their individual personalities. The story sometimes lagged because whoever was narrating would always take couple sentences to marvel at the other person’s awesomeness…every single chapter, except for their first few interactions. Of course, that’s what is expected of first love: that dreamy adoration and idealization of the other person. When you’re in love, you can’t help but see that person through rose-coloured lenses. Both Park and Eleanor see the cracked beauty in each other even though their families and peers put them down. And as annoying as it was sometimes, it definitely changes who they are as characters and moves the story forward.

 

Eleanor and Park’s love story consequently comes to a tragic end, one that the reader begins to faintly suspect even in the early inklings of their romance. Yet despite this knowledge, the reader is encouraged to cheer them on nonetheless, to fawn over their first kiss, their first date, their first encounter. Overall, Rowell created an intense story of first love with two young misfits who remind adults of their younger days and who teenagers want as their best friends.

 

(On a side note: Rainbow Rowell has a fantastic name. She could be a Beatles song or an 80s band name.)

Party Like You Have no Future: The Spectacular Now

“Life is a big, screwed-up joke with its ups and downs. The best way to deal with it is to live in the now, pursue all the pleasure and deal with none of the grief.”the-spectacular-now-movie-poster-1

That’s the message I get from Sutter Keely, protagonist of The Spectacular Now. He takes a purely hedonistic, somewhat philosophical world view throughout the book. Tharp gives Sutter a clear, blunt, narrative voice but when it comes to character development, Sutter stays the same person from point A to point B, even with inserting numerous potential turning points for him.

Sutter defines himself as “God’s own drunk”. And drinking does seem to be his life’s philosophy; he barely gets through any encounter in the book without a flask or 7UP/whiskey in hand. He doesn’t confront his own problems, despite supposedly ‘helping’ new love Aimee come out of her shell. He’s ultimately a likeable character, but as I read on, he became like a guest who has overstayed his welcome.

As for the plot, where did it go? The plot could easily just have been a set of serial anecdotes. There are too many loose ends, no closure. You’re left with too many questions, and no answers–and not in a good way. Maybe that’s how Tharp intended for it to go, a story that pantomimes real life for pleasure-seekers. Real life doesn’t have closure; sometimes we end up shelving our problems in the back of our drunk brains as life goes on.

I guess that’s ultimately the true message of the novel, hopeless as it is. Sutton had a drinking problem, family issues, a skewed view of life, but in the end, he brushes everything aside and lives in the “Spectacular Now”.

Conclusions? Well-written, funny, but half-hearted in terms of plot and character development. Instead of a real story, we get a portrait of a hedonistic, broken yet charismatic boy who approaches life with a swagger in his step, a joke in his eyes, and a flask in his hand.