Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Release: Friday, October 19, 2018 (limited) 

→Theater

Written by:  Nicole Holofcener; Jeff Whitty

Directed by: Marielle Heller

Can You Ever Forgive Me? reflects on the life and crimes of Leonore Carol Israel, a Brooklyn-based journalist who, despite making an honest living in the 1970s and ’80s writing biographies of high-profile women, one time even landing on the New York Times Bestseller list, is remembered today for her misguided — indeed, criminal — attempts at career resurrection by way of embellishing and forging literary items on behalf of deceased authors and other famous people. SNL alumna Melissa McCarthy takes on the challenge of portraying the curmudgeonly woman, and the results simply beg the question: where has this Melissa McCarthy been all this time?

In her sophomore feature, director Marielle Heller returns with a familiarly but still surprisingly sympathetic treatment of a subject who might have otherwise come out looking a lot worse in the hands of another filmmaker. Her 2015 début, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was rightfully praised for how it approached its taboo material (premature sex with an incestuous twist; drug-addled, laissez-faire parenting styles) with maturity and blunt honesty. In the process it introduced audiences to the talents of young British actress Bel Powley, who demonstrated confidence beyond her years with the way she handled such seedy material. With her follow-up feature it almost feels like Heller is giving us another formal introduction, this time to Melissa McCarthy the thespian, not the physical punchline she has become typecast as.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based upon and named after the memoir Israel published in 2008, an unapologetic and humorously self-deprecating tell-all about the mischief she got into after the ’90s arrived and brought with them the winds of change, an evolving market rendering her celebrity bios a thing of the past. Interestingly, the publishing of that very memoir as well as the publisher itself, Simon & Schuster, faced criticism as many viewed it to be merely another cash grabbing opportunity by a recognized poseur.

The film picks up right as Israel is falling on hard times, getting the boot from a late-night copy editing job, one in a string of failed attempts to secure a more reliable source of income. She shuffles back to an apartment apropos of a recluse, a poorly lit cavern smelling to high heaven as a result of long-sitting cat poop that has also drawn flies like a biblical plague. That cat, her best friend, is in desperate need of medical attention, but that’s a luxury for someone like Israel, whose abrasive personality turns off just about everyone she comes across — including the vet, with whom she unsuccessfully attempts to haggle. Rare exceptions are an old friend in Jack Hock (a wonderful Richard E. Grant) and Anna, a cheery bookstore owner (Dolly Wells).

Of the few (and strained) relationships she has, arguably the rockiest is with Marjorie (Jane Curtain), her agent. She takes the brunt of the hostility largely due to the writer believing she isn’t doing all that she can to get her Fanny Brice book off the ground. As Marjorie reminds her, it’s the 1990s and no one’s pining for biographies of 1920s vaudeville starlets. Exasperated, Israel turns to selling off what few personal possessions she has, including a letter written to her by actress Katherine Hepburn, an apparent acquaintance. However, it isn’t until she discovers another letter, this one by the very subject of her new project tucked inside a relevant book, that a lightbulb appears above Israel’s head.

What if I jazz these letters up, add more of a personal touch to them? I wouldn’t pass them off as my own creations, but rather as original insights of long since passed playwrights and authors. And I’ll use a variety of typewriters to create the desired effects. Genius, no? You know what, save your opinions. I know it’s genius. If you never forgive me, c’est la vie. 

Heller, working from a script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, has created an intimate character study that foregrounds a minimal, lonely existence against the hustle and bustle of New York. There’s less than a handful of significant characters involved, but their interactions are meaningful and tinged with a profound sadness, an emptiness, a longing for something more. Everyone in the movie brings their A-game, but McCarthy is simply a revelation as the caustically witted writer.

So good is she, in fact, that you tend to overlook what Grant brings to the scene as Jack Hock, an aging rapscallion who has suffered his own fair share of heartbreak in the past and faces a great deal of hardship in the present. A gay man about town, he lives day to day for new adventures, scrounging for happiness in an era where people avoided celebrities like basketball star Magic Johnson because they didn’t want their sickness to literally rub off on them. When he conspires with a miscreant, now selling “her work” to every literary dealer in town, he finds a new lease on life. Together, the two form a kindred spirit that gives what could have been a cold movie a surprisingly warm, beating heart.

Israel’s fate may be obvious, even before the killjoys from the FBI show up, but it is a testament to the performances and the steady, confident direction supplied by Heller that we get swept up in the misadventure and actually enjoy the ride, in spite of all the misery.

Who you gonna call?

Recommendation: Reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, this is a deeply human drama about personal and professional dignity, of failure and success. It’s one of my favorite movies of 2018, by far. Can You Ever Forgive Me? will win you over with performances that are both heartbreaking and mischievously entertaining.

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “This next song goes out to all the agoraphobic junkies who couldn’t be here tonight.”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Almost Famous (2000)

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As Will Smith notes in Independence Day, it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings. And while I knew, deep down, there would not be any fat lady singing to indicate this feature had truly ended, I also knew there was no way I could stop doing these posts. It’s the longest-running feature on the blog! Fortunately I have, in my estimation, something kind of important to talk about to jumpstart the conversation about films from years past. And it is actually one I am lifting from this Top That! list I had posted a little while ago, which you can check out here. Okay. I think that’s enough links for one intro.

Today’s food for thought: Almost Famous.

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Following Stillwater since: September 22, 2000

[Netflix]

Even though it’s kind of a bummer, it really does make sense. Rock stars are cool and rock journalists are . . . not. I wonder what that says about film critics, about those who try hard to be included in the spotlight but never will — doomed to remain tantalizingly on the fading edge of the spotlight while trying their damnedest to understand that which they are covering for their stories in an effort to perhaps better understand themselves.

In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s turn-of-the-century (millennium, actually) film about a young aspiring journalist who stumbles into the industry only to haphazardly fall back out of it after following a fictitious rock band around the U.S. in an attempt to get his first cover story published, Crowe was confessing several things.

First, the obvious (and quite cliché): fame ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Patrick Fugit, billed as William Miller but clearly miming Cameron Crowe at age 15 when he himself was contributing articles to Rolling Stone magazine while still attending high school, learns this the hard way. When a rock critic he greatly admires sends him on his first professional assignment to cover headliner Black Sabbath, William inadvertently gets swept up in the experiences — many thrilling and others not so much — shared by the members of Stillwater with whom he forms a bond during their 1973 American tour.

Second, if Almost Famous was even close to an accurate rendering of some of his experiences, then writing about rock’n roll was the gig to get, despite bitterness frothing in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cautionary monologues bookending William’s adventure. “Don’t befriend the bands you meet . . . ” (whoops); “You will never be as cool as a rock’n roll celebrity. People like us, we’re not cool.” If the relationship between Crowe and Rolling Stone taught him anything, it’s how to write a great screenplay. Perhaps the transition into writing movies was less a stepping stone as it was inevitable, the precursor to actually being cool.

And of tertiary importance: if you were a die-hard rock fan, the 70s must have been a rough ride. Band leaders Russell (Billy Crudup) and Jeff (Jason Lee) take center stage in representing Stillwater on and off the tour bus, naturally, as the two lead guitarists. The pair exhibit varying levels of enthusiasm over having a journalist along for their tour as they have serious concerns about how their image may be affected when William (a.k.a. “the enemy”) publishes his story. Struggling to maintain relevance in an era of ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ and Dancing Queens the members are keen on steering William in the direction they wanted his writing to take them, which is to say, towards the limelight of bigger stages.

Almost Famous is uncanny in many ways but it truly excels in creating tension between personal and professional goal-setting. New band managers entering the fold add to Stillwater’s misery; an air of distrust and uncertainty surrounding the wide-eyed journalist’s intentions thickens as time passes. Then toss Stillwater groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, iconic) into the mix as Russell’s ex and the first to take an interest in William at the Black Sabbath concert, and suddenly the lives of rock journalist and professional rock band don’t seem so incongruous. It’s the warning Hoffman’s Lester Bangs was providing all along.

Crowe may have tapped into the zeitgeist of the 70s music scene, but he also struck a deeper chord. This was something of a personal journey for him and it would be a mistake to think, despite how good Patrick Fugit is — hell, how good any of the members of this sprawling ensemble are — Almost Famous served primarily as an actor’s showcase. This learning experience is tinged with pain, nostalgia, envy, regret, sorrow, elation. The cast sublimely navigate these emotions in a story that begs to be revisited time and again. For all of these reasons and more, Crowe’s fourth directorial effort has been rightfully regarded as a classic.

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4-5Recommendation: An almost perfect film experience, watch Almost Famous for the nostalgia, for the music (there are 50 credited songs used here), for the performances, for the Philip Seymour Hoffman performance (who was sick the entire time), for the plane scene, for Penny Lane — for all of it. If Almost Famous doesn’t appeal, music dramas are clearly not your cup of tea. And I guess, that’s cool too . . . 

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: A literal coming-of-age story: Patrick Fugit’s voice apparently broke (deepened) during the making of Almost Famous.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

Third Person

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Release: Friday, June 20, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Putting it mildly, Third Person is a rather luke-warm rumination on romance whose title feels fairly appropriate considering how much the content likes to emotionally strand the viewer for over two painfully long hours. In fact the lethargic pace is such that it’s easy to get the impression the director really doesn’t care whether you’re occupying a seat or not.

Clearly working within a certain blueprint, Paul Haggis at best treads water with his latest entry, a trio of love stories taking place simultaneously in Paris, Rome and New York. Whereas ten years prior he was comfortable allowing his cameras to settle on moments of pure and unnerving racial tension in his Best Picture-winning Crash, here his commitment to painting reality like it is just doesn’t feel as inspired. The structural similarity also suggests possible creative burn-out on Haggis’ part, though the recycled formula is less of an issue as the quality of this final product.

What dooms Third Person more than anything is one doozy of a predictable denouement that can be all but seen coming from the film’s opening title sequence. It’s the kind of unimaginative revelation that sends up red flags as to whether Haggis even bothered. It is also the second suggestion that inspires the thought that this was a film made with no real discernible audience in mind. Perhaps its just catering to the audience with the least discernible tastes in romanticism.

Upon this chessboard of troubled relationships Haggis has placed several bland characters, ones slightly improved by the big names portraying them.

Liam Neeson is once again a hardened, scruffy tough man. . .well, a writer. . .named Michael, and Olivia Wilde is Anna, a woman with a dark history. They’re introduced to us in a rather surreptitious manner; indifferent camera angles lingering on a young, beautiful woman and her significantly older, more moody male counterpart passive-aggressively suggests something ain’t quite right with the girl.

The second pairing finds James Franco playing a successful artist, apparently named Rick (at the very least, we learn character names aren’t worth much in this universe), and who is having trouble with an ex of his who had attempted to hurt their son. Spotlight on a Mila Kunis who might not have ever achieved this level of irritating. Not even as Meg. Shut up, Meg.

The third relationship takes place in Rome and blossoms between Adrien Brody’s Scott and a mysterious Romanian woman named Monika (Moran Atias). The two bump into one another at a dive bar, wherein Scott, a clothing designer harboring a disdain for Italian fashion, learns that Monika is on the trail to meet up with her long-missing daughter who was kidnapped by a Russian gangster. Awkwardly ingratiating himself in the woman’s personal affairs from the get-go, this thread might be the most woefully developed and conceived of the three as Brody does his best to force something out of almost literally nothing. Ice-breaker conversation at the bar comes close to inducing an early nap time.

Whereas the other stories experience less boredom, the intertwining scenes that flip between Michael and Anna’s affair versus Rick and Julia (Kunis)’ troubled history instead just cause a headache and a good bit of confusion. One might be able to admire Haggis’ ability to thread the needle in certain spots — his delivery of certain heartbreaking pieces of information do indeed almost break the heart they’re so painful and twisted in their morality — but these brief spurts of brightness are perhaps the only compliments you can pay Third Person — noteworthy or otherwise. More often than not the multiple tiers of varied trust issues add up to nothing more than a rambling, incoherent mess. A more detailed review of it would start to feel much the same.

If 2004 was the Crash, well, we should have been prepared for the burn.

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1-5Recommendation: There’s not a whole lot that Third Person presents compellingly. Love stories trend much the same way as the millions that have come before, yet the involvement of three stories punches up the intrigue factor just a little. But if I can recommend this film on a performance-basis, I see no reason to outright say ‘No’ to this. The actors do fine work. But the script and Haggis most certainly do not. May I recommend the rental. . .and then the very frequent scene-skipping to get to the good parts. Which basically involve Olivia Wilde. Okay, okay — and Liam Neeson.

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “I need you to look at what you did, I need you to face what you can’t face, and I need you to tell me the truth.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Her

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Release: Friday, January 10, 2014

[Theater]

When Spike Jonze makes a film this intelligent, it’s pretty difficult to comprehend the fact that this is the same guy underneath all that ghastly ‘Old Granny’ make-up in Jackass. Even though that was a pretty minor role Jonze played in the show/movies, it was still a semi-recurring one. Yet, it couldn’t be a more polar opposite experience to what he’s presenting here.

His Her is destined to be a modern classic, an enchanted fairytale for the iPod generation. Stylish, comical and surprisingly poignant, this original screenplay from Granny Jonze captures human interaction and emotion like few films have before. For every decent (or even great) romance film or love story that has preceded this and the missteps they have taken in their efforts to affect audiences a certain way, Her manages to learn from those errors and simply avoids making them.

Seeing as though virtually everything that could possibly work for a film does work for this one, let’s start at the main menu, with the performances, for they are astonishing.

Joaquin Phoenix dons a pair of thick wire-framed glasses (yes, this pair actually does have lenses) and a funny mustache as he transforms himself into yet another peculiar lead. This time it’s Theodore Twombly, a lonely Los Angelino in the middle of a painful divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara). His performance is one of the man’s most earnest and vulnerable; this is a person who doesn’t know what he wants out of intimate relationships. That’s true of the past and certainly his biggest conundrum looking forward. Phoenix disguises a complex range of emotions within his furrowed brow, occasionally expressing the more irrepressible of them with a wide-eyed, slack-jawed look of disbelief. The nerd-glasses are particularly effective in conveying his discomfort on a number of occasions.

Phoenix is no doubt the focus here, but it’s what Scarlett Johansson is able to accomplish with a disembodied voice that will come to distinguish this production.

In this more impersonal society, technology has spawned an operating system that is intended to help people stay more organized and on task. Code-named OS1, Theodore can’t help but get one of his own since he figured it couldn’t hurt him anymore than he already is. Beginning as a mere sentient program, she quickly develops a genuine personality in which Theodore feels comfortable confiding. She even names herself ‘Samantha.’ In fact, technology has reached a point to where the OS1 learns to feel exactly as a person does or would in any given situation, but because it is a highly-advanced program, it has an obligation to learn so much more. In fact, it’s not even obligation — this is just what computers do. Samantha’s capacity to learn, to feel and experience proves to be far greater than Theodore could have imagined, the more they get to know one another.

Johansson’s role may seem limited — even off-putting — but this ethereal, beautiful voice couldn’t be more entrancing. The ease with which she stores herself into the viewer’s long-term memory is, in all honesty, haunting.

Not fully convinced that two incredible central performances are sufficient, Granny Jonze cleverly thrusts the story into a latter-21st-century context. The L.A. of the future doesn’t look so radically different as to be unrecognizable, but there’s an oh-so-slight dystopian accent which enhances this sense of distance between people. The fact that most passers-by caught in any given shot all seem to be engaged in an OS1 chat of their own is intended to give viewers pause for consideration. Never before has having a conversation with someone who’s less than ten feet away from you seemed like such a quaint idea.

And yet the chemistry between Theodore and Samantha proves an utterly beautiful contradiction to the environment in which their relationship has been established. The fact that it’s possible to feel some emotion towards what even the least discerning of audiences recognizes as a very intelligent computer system, is a testament to the quality of the screenplay and the respective performances. And while the leads are certainly unforgettable, there are a couple of contributing performances that help realize dear old Granny Jonze’s vision.

Olivia Wilde’s brief appearance as a blind date Theodore meets one night (at Samantha’s request, actually) is well-placed. In a few brief minutes we gain a deep understanding of the type of relationship she’s looking for, and simultaneously a better understanding of who Theodore is. . .and isn’t. This cast isn’t exactly extensive, and because it isn’t, the film benefits further from the only other main character’s strong presence in Amy (Amy Adams), who is Theodore’s friend from college and currently a colleague at the letter-writing company he works at.

A couple of others get to (literally) phone it in, with Kristen Wiig connecting briefly as one of the film’s arguably funniest moments; and Chris Pratt gets to be the weird receptionist guy who takes an unusually strong interest in Theodore’s writing skills. Though slight, each little quirky character adds to the awkwardness of the experience.

The director clearly trusts in his cast enough to let them do the heavy emotional lifting, but as a writer, he steps in with an unusually perceptive script that builds (and demolishes) characters and situations in completely believable ways. Attention to detail is at a level unparalleled in many films as of late, manifested in everything from the color palette (mainly reds), to the pillow talk Theodore has with Samantha, to the way Phoenix scrunches his eyebrows in reaction to things.

Granny should know the effort that went in does not go unnoticed. Her. . . excuse me, his film, Her — if there’s any justice in the world — should stand as one of the proud cinematic achievements of the 21st Century. Not only a deeply emotional film, it’s a conversation about the future that we needed to have.

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5-0Recommendation: Neither strictly romance nor dedicated to being simply sci-fi or comedy, Her dramatizes elements of each while incorporating a refreshingly earnest take on relationships and it strikes an emotional chord while doing so. Anyone who has ever considered themselves in one of those, well. . .you should probably see this one. That does sound like a lazy recommendation, but honestly it’s the truth. This is one of the best films I personally have ever seen. (Too soon?)

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Kill Your Darlings

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Release: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Harry drops out of Hogwarts to start attending Columbia University — good idea?

Probably one of the easier observations anyone is going to make when referring to Kill Your Darlings, a film that tips its hat to the romantics who inspired a literary revolution both stylistically and philosophically, is the fact that it does indeed feature Daniel Radcliffe in one of the lead roles. The next largest elephant in the room has to be Dane DeHaan, whose impressive performance earlier in the year in The Place Beyond the Pines, an epic story spanning several generations of family, garnered him a great deal of praise very quickly. As it turns out, the attention was well-deserved. DeHaan is equally brilliant — if not more so — as he bolsters his career further in this film involving hipsters. . . .before hipsters were actually hipsters*.

Kill Your Darlings‘ tightly-knit plot sorts through the intricate relationships amongst the young poets Allen Ginsberg (Radcliffe), Lucien Carr (DeHaan), Jack Keruoac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster), and how these relationships grew and evolved over the disquieting years in the wake of World War II. A singular event casts a shadow over the futures of these writers when the murder of an outsider, the older David Kammerer (Dexter’s Michael C. Hall), implicates Ginsberg, Carr and Burroughs during the ensuing police investigation in 1944.

The mention of hipsters that surfaced a little while ago is not really accurate. The writers who inspired what came to be known later as the Beat Generation — Ginsberg’s most famous piece, ‘Howl,’ Burrough’s ‘Naked Lunch’ and Karuoac’s ‘On the Road’ being the most notable examples of these times — intentionally went against the grain in an effort to expose the claustrophobic amour-propre of the time. No longer was poetry to suffer the restrictions of rhyme and meter, or anything else that was declared as traditional, societally-accepted forms of expressionism. ‘Hipster’ is a bit of a misnomer because the Beat Generation may be more naturely associated with the peace/hippie movements of the 60s and 70s.

However, it was the attitudinal divergence that makes such a comparison to contemporary hipsters easy to make. Ginsberg, Burroughs and, in particular Carr, discounted traditional methods of storytelling and instead pushed for less restrictions in the constructions thereof, leaning more towards open, honest and potentially graphic interpretations of the human experience.

With hindsight, Radcliffe and DeHaan seem to be ideal actors to personify such ambitious types. While Ginsberg was certainly more of the quieter, more easily intimidated of the two, Carr had no issues whatsoever in flaunting publicly his disdain for the institutions that were. DeHaan plays this up terrifically, and we have a great deal of fun reveling in his casting-out of mainstream society. Radcliffe settles into his post-Potter role with grace as well, at once demonstrating the intense love he had for Lucien while at the same time revealing his own personal fragilities. Ginsberg went to college, leaving behind a mother (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who was mentally ill and a father with wandering eyes. He also found his new home at Columbia University extremely intimidating, a reality that Radcliffe acknowledges behind glasses exceptionally well.

In many ways, John Krokidas’ debut film recalls the passion of dare-to-live films like Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, and October Sky. Its cast is possessed with those same feverish desires to escape and expand beyond the oppressive powers and circumstances that are already in place; the settings and locations are just as romantic and timeless. Desperate actions occur at the most inopportune of moments. But the thing that sets Krokidas’ work apart is a clever blend of the artistic and the lawful. The events that take place in these semi-turbulent times play out much like a murder-mystery, yet they bear all the trademarks of a romance piece. It’s an effective, lively blend of genres that makes for a quick hour and forty-five minutes of viewing.

While the film ultimately doesn’t draw the most grandiose of conclusions from what transpires, it doesn’t necessarily have to. History has already been made and here, Krokidas is trying to recreate it using film as the medium. Clearly there are liberties to be taken along the way, and it’s unlikely that each and every aspect to Darlings is completely untainted by a director wanting to dramatize certain elements for entertainment’s sake, but the combination works deliciously well.

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3-5Recommendation: Some are going to view this is as a stuffy film (if they’ve even heard of it), but I urge those people to give it a chance. It involves some delightful characters, simultaneously making great use of its young actors in Radcliffe and DeHaan, while respectfully paying tribute to some of America’s most transformative writers. This forthcoming comment is going to sound limiting, but if you enjoyed Robin Williams and his secretive Dead Poets Society, you will be guaranteed to fall in love with this as well. There’s a palpable joy and love in both narratives that is difficult to shake after watching.

Rated: R

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “Another lover hits the universe, the circle is broken.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com