Film Review: Wild Nights with Emily

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History isn’t always written by the winners. Sometimes, it’s written by mediocre opportunists capitalizing on the talents of others. Regardless, history has always had a patriarchal hue, even when written by women. We now know that Emily Dickinson was not a spinster recluse, but a passionate and vibrant woman who understood that if she wanted to follow her heart in the 19th century, she would have to do so in secret.

Madeleine Olnek’s third feature film, Wild Nights with Emily, is more than just an attempt to right the way history has wronged Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon). Though the story takes a few narrative liberties, a great deal of it is based in fact. Olnek used Dickinson’s letters and poems – with permission from Harvard University Press – in order to piece together an honest supposition regarding Dickinson’s personal life. She suggests that the person responsible for creating and perpetuating the myth was likely also a victim of her time. Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz) forged Dickinson’s persona without ever actually meeting the woman. Furthermore, she did so whilst carrying on an affair with Emily’s married brother, Austin (Kevin Seal). Seimetz plays Todd with a lighthearted humblebrag swagger atop a desire to do what she felt was necessary to get Dickinson’s work published. Todd erased the name “Sue” from many of Dickinson’s more impassioned works. It’s likely that she wasn’t acting completely out of self-interest. She thought that the world wasn’t ready for a lesbian poet, but that Dickinson’s verse was too revolutionary to keep hidden…

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SIFF Event: An Afternoon w/ Molly Shannon

Molly Shannon is a Superstar. Maybe not in the same way that Beyonce or Lady Gaga are Superstars – she’s not an ethereal, looming presence, so much as an awesome person who also happens to be a tremendously gifted comedic and dramatic actor. She first gained notoriety in 1995 when she joined the cast of Saturday Night Live, where she remained for 6 seasons. During that time, she introduced the world to such indelible characters as Mary Catherine Gallagher (“When I get nervous, I stick my hands in my armpits and smell ‘em like this”) and Sally O’Malley (“I’M 50!”). Her characters were hilariously offbeat, but also oddly inspirational because of their unwavering drive and confidence.

On Sunday, May 22nd, the Seattle International Film Festival presented “An Afternoon with Molly Shannon.” After a brief retrospective of her work, (including clips from film and television comedies like SuperstarWet Hot American Summer and Seinfeld, and comedic dramas like Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl and Addicted to Fresno), Variety deputy awards and features editor Jenelle Riley introduced the effervescent actress, who revealed that she was fulfilling a childhood dream by sitting in front of a large audience, answering questions whilst sipping a hot beverage from a mug. “Sorry, your drink is cold,” Riley apologized. Even Molly Shannon can’t have everything…

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Film Review: Other People

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There have been so many movies made about people dying of cancer; it’s practically become its own genre. Some films are melodramatic almost to the point of glamorizing the disease, as the beautiful stars remain beautiful to their last breaths, spouting tearful platitudes and seeming almost wistful about their imminent demises. Some films are, thankfully, more truthful portrayals of how this all-too common disease absolutely demolishes the lives of anyone it touches. Chris Kelly’s phenomenal debut feature, Other People, not only falls into the latter category, it epitomizes it. In this semi-autobiographical tragicomedy, Jesse Plemons (TVs Fargo, Breaking Bad) plays David, a thirty-year-old New York Based television writer who returns to his hometown of Sacramento to help care for his mother (Molly Shannon, Saturday Night Live, Wet Hot American Summer), who is dying of a rare and particularly aggressive form of skin cancer. David struggles not only to come to terms with his mother’s condition, but also to connect with his younger sisters (Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty) and his father (Bradley Whitford, TVs Transparent and The West Wing) who refuses to acknowledge the fact that his son is gay. The title refers to the fact that cancer is the sort of thing that happens to “other people”, only now, they are the other people.

Other People is the sort of movie that I find it hard to recommend, because despite the fact it is an outstanding movie, it will also ruin your day, especially if you’ve seen a loved through terminal cancer. There are moments that are practically unbearable to watch, because of their haunting accuracy. But despite the fact that you will need an entire box of tissues to make it through this movie, there are well-timed moments of levity, preventing the characters from tumbling into the abyss of despair. These moments happen organically as they do in life. A tone-deaf acquaintance interrupts David as he’s telling his friends about his mother’s condition, ignoring the tears in everyone’s eyes and hijacking the conversation with her own “struggles”. David finds his parents in jovial hysterics after having eaten too much pot butter. An amusingly self-assured pre-teen (J.J. Totah) converses with David when he comes to visit his older brother, David’s childhood friend. Later, said pre-teen puts on a risqué, Lady Gaga-esque show stopping number at his dad’s birthday party. Jokey exchanges between characters lighten the mood. David’s grandparents (June Squibb and Paul Dooly) make endearingly off-color comments, as only grandparents can. Molly Shannon’s character, Jo, is herself a hilarious person until she becomes too sick to make jokes.

As he cares for his mother, David also struggles to find a writing job, deals with the aftermath of a long-term relationship, and has an epically disastrous OK Cupid date. Even as his mother’s life is nearing an end, David’s must go on. But he finds it understandably difficult to do anything other than try to process the fact that he is about to lose the only person in his life who loves him unconditionally. His biggest challenge is to figure out how to keep his mother’s memory with him after she is gone. Shannon and Plemons have phenomenal mother/son chemistry and their scenes together are the heart of the film.

The film does end on a slight up-note (as up a note as a movie like this can possibly strike). But you’re going to be ugly-crying until the credits roll. Just be prepared for that. Other People is a truly fantastic film. It’s raw, poignant, hysterical, and so dreadfully authentic. I do hope, for Chris Kelly’s sake, that his next film is inspired by a much nicer life experience.