Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

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Can You Ever Forgive Me

Melissa McCarthy, proud portrayer of the loudmouth and practitioner of the pratfall, takes an intriguing new tack in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” playing a wily fraudster. It turns out she makes a convincing charlatan, clever enough to take in experts in the autograph collecting trade.

Based on an autobiography, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” tells the story of Lee Israel, a New York writer of celebrity biographies (Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Hepburn, etc.) who’s well has dried up by 1991. Her shabby West Side apartment is behind on the rent, and she has only a feline for company. “I’m a 51-year-old woman who likes cats better than people,” she states.

Trying to pitch her latest effort (a bio of comedienne Fanny Brice), Lee gets strong pushback from her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin), who sourly suggests that Israel seek another line of work. Trolling a library book on Brice, she discovers an original letter written by the actress, which she tries to sell to a local bookshop run by Anna (Dolly Wells). Advised that the autograph is sales worthy, she is also told that the text is anodyne and would sell for more with some distinctive element. Enticed by the prospect, Lee confects a fake—and clever—postscript, which she peddles for serious cash.

Thus, she begins inventing (on various typewriters) cunning letters from famous authors, Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, inter alia, and receives comfortable cash payments to bolster her life and her ego. A chance meeting with a gay lay-about, Jack Hock (Richard T. Grant), in her local watering hole proves positive in that he encourages her in her fraud and becomes a drinking buddy. The ruse bolsters them both, until it doesn’t, when one collector questions the authenticity of one of her notes. Feeling vulnerable with her normal sources, she enlists the daffy Jack to stand in for her. Their continuing scam effort does not go well...

The film, directed by Marielle Heller, is pitched down, both in its muted actions and its amber to brown tones, as befits the subject of a failing drunk living out a life at the typewriter and hanging out in saloons. Yet she has Jack Hock, personified trippingly by Grant, a vagrant will-of-the-wisp, a garrulous Brit up for a main chance or a lark, but utterly irresponsible and exhibiting the attention span of a fly. When Lee gives him the simple task of looking out for her apartment for a few days, you know he will mess up big time. His principal gift in life—which Lee comes to appreciate—is being a good bar mate.

McCarthy’s comic persona here is caustic and sardonic, appropriate to a woman who has always been alone (and preferred it that way) and now sees her livelihood threatened and her creative self quashed. A particularly poignant display of self-awareness comes when she testifies at her own trial, both recognizing her crimes yet still viewing them as offering the most inventive writing of her career (“I’m not copying, I’m creating”), a realization that the real Lee Israel came to recognize in herself. This tough gal may not be laugh-out-loud funny but should win many wry smiles.

(Now in theaters, the film is rated “R” for language and runs for 106 mins.)

(October 2018)

Melissa McCarthy (as Lee Israel) and Richard E. Grant ask for another drink in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.


Based on a Richard Ford novel, “Wildlife” is a domestic drama of lower middle-class lives thwarted both by fate and personality, of a family struggling to stay together in small town Montana in 1960. It is narrated by a teenage boy who observes his parents drift apart while he is powerless to affect their dissolution. The American character actor Paul Dano directs for the first time, and he gives it the weight and complexity it deserves.

The Brinson family has recently moved to Great Falls, where husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) works at a local golf course. His wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) is a housewife and former substitute teacher. Their only child is Joe (Ed Oxenbould) a withdrawn 14-year-old who serves (as in the novel) as our wide-eyed witness to his family’s foibles. When Dad loses his job at the course (“I’m too well liked,” is his excuse), he decides precipitously to take a job fighting forest fires in the western part of the state, leaving Mom and Joe to fend for themselves. Jeanette laments: “Why did he have to bring us out here to such a lonely place?”

Mom gets a job at a car dealership but finds herself lonely enough to take up with the owner Warren Miller (Bill Camp), who has the nicest house in town. One night, Joe gets a preview of grown-up life when he and Jeanette are invited to Miller’s house for dinner, an evening where he sees mom succumb to drink and some folderol with their host. He can only hope that his father soon returns. And Jerry does, flush with tales of the fires and faced with a disillusioned wife who wants to move to out. Joe can only wonder what his future role is in this fractured family.

Dano, who works from an adaptation written by another actor of his generation Zoe Kazan (Emily in “The Big Sick”), uses a very studied style for his first feature, avoiding a moving camera and presenting scenes with mostly static set-ups within which his subjects move in and out. He uses only limited close-ups to emphasize significant dialogue (such as a telling heart-to-heart between Joe and Warren that is both riveting and unsettling). The apparent placidity of the shots belies the unseen turmoil within each principal’s mind.

This is not the first time British actress Carey Mulligan has played an American (“Mudbound,” The Great Gatsby”), but it is clearly a new kind of role for her: a hard-to-read woman pursuing an ambition she cannot really define. She’s unpredictable, a little cruel, and possessed of an inchoate independent streak: a hard person to like. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jerry is more open but needy and feckless, foundering to make sense of his life. Both actors nail the natures of these limited souls.

The adult in the room is Ed Oxenbould as Joe. While mainly seen taking things in, wide-eyed, he is the one character who delivers the occasional sensible line, who is silently critiquing what his parents are going through. Young Ed, an Australian actor, made his breakthrough film in “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day“ where he was the put-upon Alexander. He has graduated to a “no good, very bad” family but is its only reason for hope.

(This film is rated “PG-13” and runs 104 mins.)

(October 2018)

Carey Mulligan as Jeanette Brinson, Ed Oxenbould as Joe Brinson, and Jake Gyllenhaal (background) as Jerry Brinson in “Wildlife.”
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

22 July

How do you frame an “entertainment” about one of the century’s most horrific terrorist incidents? The incident is the slaughter of 77 people, mostly students, on July 22, 2011, by Norwegian right-wing fanatic Anders Behring Breivik, and the film about his rampage, made by English director Paul Greengrass (“United 93,” “Captain Phillips”), is a thoughtful, compelling depiction of the crime and its aftermath.

“22 July” comes in roughly three chapters: the massacre, the legal setting, and Breivik’s trial. For the killings—a combination of a pipe bomb in downtown Oslo, followed by the shooting of 69 people at a Workers’ Youth League meeting on the island of Utøya—there is little build-up; Greengrass shows us the killer getting down to business, performing his murders efficiently and chillingly (but with no lingering blood or horror). While Breivik roams the island, we follow a second protagonist, Vijar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), a leader of the youth group, who is shown being hunted down like a deer, receiving five bullet wounds, and being left for dead.

The second portion treats both the legal machinations of Breivik’s case, including the assignment of a reluctant defense lawyer Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden) and the Norwegian government’s reaction to the rampage. The attorney’s earnest attempts to get through to his fanatic client prove fruitless as Brevik’s only spouts his delusional political theories. Intercut with these scenes are the struggles of the injured Vijar to first survive then overcome his multiple disabilities.

The trial completes the story, the case resting on a possible insanity defense and whether Vijar himself will be able to testify. The film’s climax is his testimony.

Overall, the film, though long, convinces. All the lead performances are superb, especially Gravli’s, showing Vijar’s wrenching rehabilitation and composed strength. Greengrass, known for his stunning use of the hand-held mobile camera, shows he still has his stuff in that regard with the opening, all tick-tock, quick-cut scenes, and the relentless shooting spree on the island. Yet he can rightly slow it down when he gets to more controlled sequences, between lawyer and client, for example, or in the tense, almost aching, courtroom setting.

“22 July” is hardly just a disaster film or the glorification of a killer, but rather an attempt at depicting, attentively, an unspeakable act, and rendering the triumph of the human spirit in the wake of that act.

(One caveat: though “22 July” is about Norway and with a Norwegian cast, the film is entirely in English, a commercial decision that seems jarring but which eventually fades as the drama takes over.)

(The film, with a short run in theaters and now on Netflix, is rated “R” and runs 143 minutes)

(October 2018)

Science Fair

In recent years, the documentary film has discovered an almost surefire subject: kids’ competitions. The compelling “Spellbound” (2002) was the first of these stories to warm filmgoers hearts, followed by the sweet “Mad Hot Ballroom” (2005) and last year’s stirring “Step.” You can now add to that list “Science Fair,” an inspiring and wonderful true-life Revenge of the Nerds.

“Science Fair” follows nine high school students from around the world as they aim to compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) sponsored by Intel. In total, this annual event in Los Angeles attracts some 1,700 of the brightest (and quirkiest) science scholars from 78 different countries seeking to become “Best in Fair.”

The kids the filmmakers select are a varied and fascinating batch. There is Robbie of West Virginia, who gets lousy algebra grades but is a natural math genius with a penchant for loud shirts. Kashifa is a shy, self-effacing Muslim girl who struggles for recognition at her large sports-minded school in South Dakota. Three lively guys from Kentucky’s top science school, Ryan, Harsha, and Abraham, collaborate to build an electronic 3-D stethoscope. Anjali, only 13 and a freshman, is a child prodigy at the same Louisville school as the trio and is fashioning an arsenic testing device that could save many lives.

Then there is Myllena and Gabriel, best friends and research partners from one of Brazil’s poorest states (Ceara) who are studying how to identify a protein that could stem the spread of the Zika virus. Finally, there is the gawky but brilliant Ivo, who lives near the Rhine River and looks to revive the long-forgotten single-wing aircraft as a viable airship. The film also has time to focus on one inspiring mentor, Dr. Serena McCalla, a research teacher from Long Island who has built a remarkable science fair team at Jericho High School that qualified nine students for the Fair.

Unlike the other competition films mentioned above, we are not allowed into the exhibition hall to see how the judges make their decisions on the projects, though we do get to experience the tension and uplift when the winners are announced in a convention hall and cheer along with the rapt crowd.

The co-directors and co-writers of “Science Fair,” Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, have pulled off a winner in their first documentary feature. The picture is a particular triumph for Costantini, who was herself a dweeby girl in a sports-obsessed Wisconsin school, where she “found my tribe” through Science Fair. It was her own experience at ISEF, which drove her to “make a documentary about this crazy little world. It had everything--an international cast of angsty teenagers and inspiring prodigies, all devoted to one very niche subculture, and all striving to make the world a better place.” Amen.

(The film contains nothing objectionable and is rated “PG,” it runs 90 minutes)

(September 2018)

Gabrieland Myllena are best friends and research partners from Ceara, one of Brazil’s poorest states, and aim to inhibit the Zika virus.
Photo courtesy of Fusion Media.