Sunday, September 18, 2016

Other People (***)

Written and Directed by Chris Kelly


Other People is the kind of Sundance-y tragicomedy that has the capacity to really produce a heavy duty eye-roll from me, but Chris Kelly (a comedy writer for Saturday Night Live and Broad City) does deliver some pretty tremendous stuff here in his first feature film. His script is autobiographical, with actor Jesse Plemons playing David, a comedy writer from NYC who moves back to Sacramento to live with his parents while his mother Joanne (a dynamite Molly Shannon) deals with cancer. David's father, Norman (Bradley Whitford), is a well-meaning but straight-laced conservative who has never truly accepted David's homosexuality, and while David spends a year trying to help his sick mother, he must also cope with the erosion of a five year relationship with his boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods) and the tumultuous downward slope of his professional career. Kelly writes for television mostly, and there are times when Other People seems to try too hard to fit its complicated emotions into simple sitcom comedic tropes. The film works best when it entrenches itself deeply into its emotional core, embracing its crippling tale of mortality. The performances from Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon are outstanding, the two actors perfectly illustrating a mother-son relationship that has only been strengthened by past turmoil. David as a character is struggling with his own issues, and is subsequently bogged down by a guilt that comes with thinking of yourself when others are in pain. Joanne is dealing with her own approaching death, and that piercing balance of worrying about yourself versus worrying about those who care about you. Other People is obviously enriched by personal experience, but it helps to have as strong a performance as you get here from the two lead actors. A Sundance weepy Other People sure is, but it doesn't mean there isn't a terrific film in there, even if its only in spurts.

Monday, September 12, 2016

White Girl (*1/2)

Written and Directed by Elizabeth Wood


One cannot make the claim that Elizabeth Wood's White Girl puts on any airs. Even its direct title puts an image in the audience's mind of a certain kind of person. Leah, the film's protagonist played with shocking fearlessness by Moran Saylor, is a Oklahoma girl going to school in New York City. After her freshman year, she moves to Ridgewood with her friend Katie (India Menuez), where she purposely ingratiates herself with a young Hispanic man named Blue (Brian Marc) who sells drugs across the street. Leah's courtship of Blue enables both her issues with impulse control and her need for drugs. Leah pushes Blue to make more money as a drug dealer, to move beyond the Brooklyn small time and make the real money in Manhattan. This is a quick and dangerous shift for Blue, and before long, he ends up arrested. The lengths that Leah goes to get Blue a proper lawyer and out of prison takes up a majority of the film. Perhaps its Leah's guilt that brings her to be so committed to Blue's freedom, or maybe it's love. It's hard to tell because writer/director Elizabeth Wood has given us no information in this regard. So many pages are left blank and what we're left with mostly are scenes of graphic sex and copious drug use. Is White Girl meant to be the tale of the numerous women chewed up and spit out by New York City? Is Leah a victim? Are we meant to be sympathetic to her predicament? Wood wants us to figure this out for ourselves, but unfortunately that leaves us with little other than tolerating a teenaged hedonist with seemingly little regard or intelligence for those around her.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Light Between Oceans (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Derek Cianfrance


Derek Cianfrance's The Light Between Oceans is probably too long. It's probably too dependent on overwrought emotion, manipulating its audience with tight close-ups of its beautiful cast crying with forlorn pain. But the film reached me. It reached me deep in the depths of my soul - right where it was aiming for. Its relentlessness in its tragedy, its document of time's toll on life, love and the human spirit, is both beautifully constructed and tirelessly maudlin. Cianfrance likes to take his time with these kinds of things. His 2010 masterpiece, Blue Valentine, was a devastating portrayal of how time and circumstance can wear down even a passionate love. His 2013 follow-up, The Place Beyond the Pines, was an uneven triptych about the lingering, generational effect of an act of violence. His films are about people entrapped by time, and its unstoppable cycle of joy and suffering. The Light Between Oceans is so deliberate about how its tells its story, very specific about how long it will take to make its points. If we live long enough, we are all confronted with tragedy, but if we live long enough still, we can still manage to find grace, or whatever peace may present itself until tragedy arrives again. His latest film is filled with people trying to escape their torment, or escape their guilt, only to find the task much harder than initially imagined.