Most of the time I like going to the VIFF to check out the out-of-the-ordinary cinema. However when a film with a lot of Oscar buzz hits the VIFF, I admit I’m tempted to see that. I was lucky to have my chance with Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The story begins in 1991 with 51 year-old Lee Israel at her customer services job. She obviously hates her job because she has a bad attitude and gets a lot of ‘old’ comments from the younger workers. She shows up at work with a glass of scotch in her hand, curses at her co-workers and then curses at her boss. That’s it. She’s fired. After being fired, she just simply downs the rest of her scotch.
The thing is Lee Israel was born to write. She wrote for Esquire magazine for many years and published biographies of Talullah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen and Estee Lauder. However her status as a successful writer ended years earlier after her biography of Lauder flopped. On top of that, she’s trying to publish a biography of Fanny Brice, but her agent says it’s not going to be a hit. Her lack of commercial success in writing couldn’t come at a worse time. She has expenses up to her eyeballs with a cat who’s sick and needs new medicine, outstanding veterinary bills form past visits, overdue rent from a landlord, and an old typewriter that keeps breaking down. Whatever money she can get, it comes from typed original letters of famous authors. She doesn’t get much money from the bookstore; one where the young author isn’t afraid to run into Lee what a has-been author she is.
One day she goes for her usual drink of scotch at her local bar. Also getting a drink is a washed-up stage actor named Jack Hock. Hock himself had a downfall after irreverent behavior at a party while drunk: peeing in a closet! This is a chance to rekindle a past friendship. They have a lot of catching up to do. This comes around the same time Lee is continuing research for her book about Fanny Brice. One day at a library while doing research on Brice, she comes across an original typewritten letter written by her. She takes it home and notices the font on the letter matches the font on Lee’s own typewriter. That gives Lee an idea to add in a juicy P.S. sentence about Fanny’s ‘love’ for a woman. She takes it to a bookstore that buys original letters from authors and they buy it for good money. However she’s told that letters with juicier detail get bigger money.
That gives Lee an new idea for success: making fake letters of renowned deceased authors. Her next subject is Noel Coward. Here she tries to get information on the type of letterhead Coward typed his letters on, the typewriter used and the subjects Coward normally talked about. Her letters are of Coward talking about his homosexuality. Israel also gets practice of forging signatures. She goes to a bookstore that buys letters for bigger money and it works! Lee can afford to pay off the vet, buy medicine for her ailing cat, pay off her landlord and even go out on a first-class night with Jack Hock to a drag cabaret performance. Soon she goes to a memorabilia show with Jack and learns all about authenticators. That just makes her more determine to succeed. She picks more deceased authors like Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Louise Brooks and Ernest Hemingway, buys the right typewriters, bakes the letters and envelopes to make the right aging, does the right forgery on the signatures. The work pays off. The authenticators fall for it and Lee gets paid good money! Lee’s also good at making phone calls disguising herself as director Nora Ephron. Lee also makes friends with a bookshop owner named Anna.
However reality does catch up. Lee is told by one of the bookowners that he senses a forgery as a friend of his who knew Noel Coward wouldn’t be so public about his homosexuality. Within time, all bookstore owners are given a fax from the FBI alerting them of Lee and her alleged fraud. Even an unscrupulous bookdealer threatens to report her to the FBI unless she pays him $5000. Does that stop her? No, as long as she has Jack. Jack is the one making the sales with the bookstore owners on the juicy forged letters. She even goes to libraries with access to archives and steals letters to cash in on. Jack brings her the money, but starts getting suspicious of whether he’s trying to steal from her. FBI agents threaten her with interrogation, but she garbages all her typewriters to avoid being caught.
One time she goes away for a three-day trip of ‘consulting’ archives and leaves Jack to take care of her cat, which includes giving him medicine. Lee steals more letters, and even meets up with her ex-girlfriend. The ex tells her of how distant she became after the flop of her Estee Lauder book. Meanwhile Jack gives the cat the wrong medicine and even gets his new boyfriend to stay overnight at her place. It’s when she returns that it all falls apart. She finds Jack making love to a man in her place, she finds her cat dead, and she soon finds herself arrested for her forgery. After much talking from her lawyer, she’s told she will most likely be found guilty and her persona and alcoholism could works against her for her sentence. She confesses her wrongdoings in court despite having no regrets. Her sentence is six months house arrest, to repay the booksellers she ripped off and to attend AA meetings.
The story ends on a positive note. She rekindles her friendship with Jack, who’s dying of AIDS. She buys a new cat and does her writing from a computer. One day, she even passes a bookseller who has the ‘Can you ever forgive me’ letter where Lee forged Dorothy Parker’s likeness. Lee sends an appropriate response. It’s up for you to see what the response was. And the response from the store owner.
When one does a story about a person in the past doing all these actions, it’s always a question on whether the film is relevant for the present. Would a film about a washed-up author forging letters about deceased celebrities and authors most of today’s generation don’t have a clue about be relevant? I can see relevance in it as it is a reflection of our present. Firstly we live in a time of celebrity worship as lots of people go to Instagram or Twitter to check out the latest dirt from their celebrity. Gossip pages get huge hits because people love shoving their nose in others’ dirty laundry. It’s easy to see why these fake letters about these celebrities’ personal lives would spark a lot of interest and make Lee Israel rich.
The interesting thing is that it sheds a light on the literary industry as well. I know we live in a culture where we’re encouraged to appreciate authors for their literary efforts, but all too often we forget that authors are subject to the same cruel industry that musicians face in the movie industry and actors face in businesses like Hollywood. The New York Times Bestseller list is the Bestseller list to end all Bestseller lists that decides the happening writers and the wash-ups. It’s no wonder Lee felt the frustration of this. You could understand why despite Lee’s success in forgery, she still wanted to be known as an author.
The film is not just about the act of crime and the difficulties of being an author. It’s also about Lee herself. Basically overall it showcased her biggest weakness: her attitude. She blamed her loss of her customer service job on ageism, but she swore at her bosses and drank gin on her last day. Her attitude cost her relationship with her ex-girlfriend. It also almost cost her friendship with Jack. It may even had to do with why she wasn’t getting writing jobs. A bad attitude can be costly. Lee would have to face the music of her wrongdoing. The biggest statement was when Lee was too afraid to face Anne in the store just as she was about to get sentenced.
Marielle Heller directs a very clever comedy about a writer starving for success, even if it’s illicit. Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty took on Lee’s memoirs and deliver a script that tells the story and more. Nicole provided the edge of a 50-something woman just trying to make something of herself. Whitty provided the backdrop of the difficulties of Lee and jack being LGBT in New York in 1991. The script not only tells the story but tells a lot more too.
Also what adds to the film is Melissa McCarthy playing Lee Israel. Hard to believe the first pick for the role was Julianne Moore. Melissa caught moviegoers’ attention when she played the feisty Megan Price in Bridesmaids. It’s been success ever since and she’s one of the most happening things in big-screen comedies right now. However most of her comedy roles in popcorn comedies have been over-the-top performances. Here, McCarthy takes on a role of a literary figure with humor and makes it three-dimensional. Possibly her best performance since Bridesmaids. Stealing the show from Melissa is Richard E. Grant. He makes the film as much Jack’s as it is Lee’s. He played Lee’s partner in crime well and the two had good chemistry. Jane Curtin was also good, and unnoticeable, as the literary agent. Dolly Wells was also good as Anne: the lonely shop keeper.
Can You ever Forgive Me? makes for a smart and entertaining comedy. So entertaining, you just might want to buy one of Lee Israel’s forged Dorothy Parker letters soon after.
I’m lucky to be living in Vancouver. It’s one of the few cities one can be able to see the nominated shorts in a big-screen theatre. Gives me a chance to review them myself and even make a should-win pick for myself. This year is quite an array of nominees in both animation and live-action. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on the nominated shorts:
-Blind Vaysha (Canada/France): dir. Theodore Ushev- This is a unique 2D animation story of a Bulgarian folk-tale. A story of a girl with one eye that can see the past and one eye that can see the future and cannot live in the present. The story also shows the attempts of others to fix Vaysha’s blindness. The linocut-style animation, however, was unique and had a lot of style and flare to it.
The story doesn’t really end. Instead the film ends asking the audience their perspective. It has a unique narrative point and I get why it’s done that way, but I often wonder if the film ended on the right note.
-Borrowed Time (USA): dirs. Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj – At first you’ll think this is a family-friendly story at the beginning but soon learn it’s not such as you move on. It’s a dark Western story of a man returning to the spot of a family tragedy from his childhood. The hurt comes back from it and he decides to do something drastic but something happens.
I have to admire Pixar animators Coats and Hamou-Lhadj for making a brief departure from their traditional family fare and doing something more mature under Quorum Films. No, it’s not R-rated like Pear Cider And Cigarettes but it’s dark enough to be adult. I think this short is most likely to upset my pick for the winner.
-Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Canada): dirs. Robert Valley and Cara Speller- Now this is a refreshing R-rated alternative. It sometimes reminds you of a Grand Theft Auto video game or the film Waltz With Bashir. However it is a personal story from director Valley. It’s a story that makes you wonder how far would you go for a friend? Especially if that friend is selfish, conniving, irresponsible and manipulative?
It’s a story that entertains and charms and even gets you to hate Techno too. Sometimes I wonder why was he friends with that jerk? I don’t know if it’s because it was set in Vancouver or because it was an R-rated alternative but it won me over and I make it my Should Win pick.
-Pearl (USA): dir. Patrick Osborne- This is the first VR short to be nominated for an Academy Award. A musician and his daughter travel in a hatchback with a song as a bond between the two. We see the two age, the daughter mature into a musician of her own and have her own version of the song. The viewer gets a 360 degree view of the whole 5-minute story.
Looks like something Richard Linklater would do. Actually it might remind you of Waking Life. An excellent short that’s entertaining and will touch you too. Might even make you go to iTunes and download No Wrong Way Home.
-Piper (USA): dirs. Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer- This is the short shown before Finding Dory. A baby bird looking for food on the beach with her mother looking on and guiding her. Pixar does it again by delivering a clever, charming, and entertaining short with the dialogue absent and the animation as detailed to a tee as it gets. It’s excellent, but it’s something we’ve come to expect from Pixar even with their shorts. Nevertheless this is my Will Win prediction.
And those are my thoughts for the Animated Shorts up for the Oscar. A lot of styles of animation between Canadian and American companies. All five were very entertaining. We’ll see who wins.
LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILMS
This year there are no films with English as the language of the majority. All five are from European countries. Here’s the rundown:
-Ennemis interieurs (France): dir. Selim Azzazi – A man from Algeria seeks to be a French citizen but the interrogator at immigration has big questions for him about meeting with a group of Algerian men back some years ago which led to him being arrested and imprisoned for two years. The interrogator keeps insisting he answers but he’s very reluctant to do so. Even to the point of neglecting his chances of French Citizenship. Why? What will make the man give his answers?
It’s a story that appears boring at first but grows with intrigue with each minute and with each new detail. The interest builds over time. It even makes you wonder why is he withholding the names of the other men? Feelings of brotherhood? Fear of retaliation from them? Also this may be about an incident in the past but it’s very relevant, especially with the Paris bombings happening in November 2015. This is my Will Win pick.
-La Femme et le TGV (Switzerland): dirs. Timo von Gunten and Giacun Caduff – Elise is a woman who wave her Swiss flag at the passing TGV train to Zurich every time it passes her house at 6 in the morning and 6 in the evening . After that she bicycles to her job at the town patisserie. It’s her daily routine for 30 years; a routine she doesn’t want to change. One day, she comes across a letter that was thrown to her by a man who goes on that daily TGV. He’s a man from France looking for work. The two develop a friendship only by mail and packages. Over time she hopes to meet this man. Then one day the train stops coming. It’s changed route? How will she deal with the change? Will she ever see the man?
It’s a charming comedy that has you engaged with the character (based on a person who has existed and did wave her Swiss flag at passing TGV trains). Gets you thinking about the woman. Is she an eccentric? Is she naive? Lonely? Unpredictable ending but a happy one.
-Silent Nights (Denmark): dirs. Aske Bang and Kim Magnusson – Inger is a young Danish woman who helps at the Salvation Army during the day and looks after her ailing mother at night. Kwame is a Ghanian immigrant who came to Denmark for a better future and to support his wife and children at home. However he’s been left homeless and makes money from recycling.
They both meet as Kwame agrees to help. The two develop a mutual friendship and even progress into something more. However it’s put to the test when Kwame steals money from the charity to pay for his daughter’s malaria treatments. Even though Kwame is banned for life, Inger forgives him and still loves him. Then Inger’s mother dies and she learns about Kwame’s family in Ghana just as she learns she is pregnant. It’s over between the two. However Inger sees Kwame one last time where she gives him advice, and something else.
It’s obvious that this story is about the immigrant situation in Denmark and the difficultly of the times for all. It presents both Inger’s side and Kwame’s side. However it’s more. It’s about a love that’s true. Inger loves Kwame so much, she’s willing to forgive him for all the terrible things he did. It makes the choice she makes for her and her baby look like the right thing. This is my Should Win pick.
-Sing (Hungary) dirs. Kristof Deak and Anna Udvardy – Zsofi is the new girl at a school. She most looks forward to singing in the choir. However on her first rehearsal, the instructor talks of a choir competition where the prize is a performance in Sweden. She also tells Zsofi her voice is not ready for the choir and tells her to lip sync. Along the way, Zsofi finds a friend in star singer Liza. The two become good friends. However Liza notices Zsofi not singing but others. When she brings this up with the instructor, she not only admits it but tries to convince the children it’s the right thing for the competition. All of which leads to a surprise ending and the ending you think is right.
Often I question what the point of this film is. Is it about competitiveness to the point the ‘lesser’ singers are not allowed to sing for the sake of the big prize? Or is it a reminder of Hungary’s past communist regime; of how those that fit in are allowed to and those that don’t aren’t, but make like everything’s okay? Even the choir director could remind you of a communist dictator on retrospect. Whatever the point, the story was entertaining and sweet. Reminds you of the joys of childhood and the right thing paying off in the end.
-Timecode (Spain) dir. Juanjo Gimenez – It starts as a check for a woman on a security job during the day. One day she learns of a broken car light. Upon viewing the video of what happened, she sees the worker before her dancing before hitting the car. She decides to give him a dancing video of her own. Video after video follows. Then on their last day, magic happens.
At first you think the man is something eccentric but this story builds into something that ends on a bizarre note. A very good film.
And there are my thoughts on this year’s nominated shorts. Now remember both categories are the hardest to predict the winner. For example, last year the consensus of critics ranked Stutterer the least likely to win Best Live Action Short and it won. Even Annie wins for Piper and Pear Cider and Cigarettes are not a guarantee that either will win.
With my shorts predictions out of the way, I just have my main predictions for all the categories to deliver. But not before my last Best Picture summary. Coming up tomorrow morning.
Into The Woods is the latest Broadway musical to hit the big screen. The question is does it entertain and charm well enough for moviegoers?
The film begins just as the fairy tales do so: Little Red Riding Hood is about to go to grandma’s with her basket, Jack has to sell the cow as she’s getting old, Cinderella is being mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, a lonely couple want a child, and Rapunzel is imprisoned in a castle by the Witch. The Witch puts a request on the couple. You first thing it’s just Rapunzel’s hair but she also asks for a red cape, a white cow and a golden slipper.
As they search the stories proceed: Riding Hood is lured off the path by a wolf, Jack goers to market but will only accept an offer that would mean the return of his cow, Cinderella arrives at the ball. However the couple find their way into the story or pass by it: Jack receives magic beans from the husband, the wife tries to swipe Cinderella’s slipper off her feet after running from the ball, the husband passes the tower Rapunzel is kept captive in, and both notice Riding Hood’s cape.
After a series of misadventures, the couple has all the items needed to produce the spell to receive their baby, all the fairy tale characters have their expected happy endings and the witch is able to regain her beauty with the potion. However the ‘Happily ever after’ endings don’t end up being so happy after all. The Baker worries he might end up being a poor father to his son just like his own father, Cinderella loses her charm for prince charming and the lavish life with it, Rapunzel is scared by the outside world, the witch loses her powers with her returned youth and Jack is pursued by the giant’s wife –ahem, widow– who came down to earth via a second beanstalk and demands Jack or she will destroy the village and its inhabitants.
Soon everything goes opposite to what’s planned. Casualties include the Baker’s wife who fell for Prince Charming before her accidental death, Rapunzel as she ran off forever with her prince, Riding Hood’s mother and grandmother, and Jack’s mother. The latter three killed in the Giant’s Wife’s rampage. On top of it, Cinderella and Prince Charming part ways. At first those still standing–the Baker, Cinderella, Jack and Red Riding Hood– think that Jack should be offered back only for them to blame each other. Nevertheless they do work things out, defend against the Giant and there’s the genesis of a new fairy tale the Baker reads to his son.
I have to say as a musical, Into The Woods was probably not the first time fairy tales have been mixed together to surround a main plot. It’s not even the first in motion pictures. Remember Shrek? What it needed to do was stay true to the fables while mixing the story of the baker and his wife as well as the haunting of the Witch during the first half and then allow for a believable twist to the fables we all know to occur in the second half. Even though the twist occurred starting with the giant’s wife appearing, all the twists of the stories had to appear sensible and pertinent to the original story. Some of the twists were very surprising and even tragic but it did come together in the end. That’s how the stage musical of Into The Woods worked.
The next trick was to bring Sondheim’s musical to the screen. Putting a stage musical to screen is a very difficult thing. There’s a lot of decision-making on what from the stage play to leave in and what to leave out. That would fall into the hands of director Rob Marshall and scriptwriter James Lapine who wrote the original Broadway version. However when it’s Disney that buys the rights, you think it would be a big break but there was an added challenge. Naturally with this being a musical about a mish mash of fairy tales, Disney would want to make this a family film and that could be intrusive to the control Sondheim and Lapine have over the play. This was not the case as both Sondheim and Lapine insisted to Disney that any changes would have to be approved by them. Even then, they would have to work within time constraints and keep it to a respectable running length.
In the end, Sondheim, Marshall, Lapine and the production company were able to create a finished adaptation 125 minutes in length that brings the musical to a big screen audience with big-name stars and additional musical talents. I myself cannot compare the film to the stage version since I’ve never seen the stage version. I will start by saying it doesn’t surprise me that Disney acquired the rights to adapting the musical to film as Disney is world famous for bringing fairy tales to life. I will say that one can do a good job differentiating the actors who know how to do musical acting and those who don’t. You just know it. There were some like Chris Pine and Mackenzie Mauzy who struggled, there were some like Billy Magnussen and James Corden who could have done a better job, there are some like Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford and Tracey Ullman who know how to deliver both singing and acting and then there are actors like Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep who are able to deliver a performance in a musical. Meryl was especially excellent as she had the role that would hold the film all together. Musical film is another genre she can add to her list of accomplishments.
I will say that the film adaptation did very well in terms of special effects and set design to give the fell like there really was one terrain in the world where all the original stories happen at once. Colleen Atwood once again knows how to create the right costumes for the movie. The music was not a problem at all as the songs were well-sung and fit the scenes well. The film also did a good job of handling the story where all the fables get their twist in the end. However the film does leave some noticeable things out. There are some times where it felt the story had key scenes left out like the big bad wolf living in the tree about to eat Red or Jack in the giant’s house or Cinderella’s fairy godmother creating her clothes for the ball. There were even some times when one could easily forget that this is a musical and it would take a song some time later to remind you. There were even a couple of scenes that made you wonder if it should have been kept in. I can’t think of a better way to do it but I’m sure there are areas that could have been done better. Rob Marshall did a very good job of directing. It’s fair to say this is his best work since Chicago but there are some areas I feel he could have been better, like not having us forget this is a musical in some areas. It may not completely be his fault as the script was written by James Lepine. Lepine may be an accomplished scriptwriter and director in musical theatre and this may be Lepine’s best musical ever but somehow he could have done a better job at a stage-to-screen adaptation.
The film adaptation of Into The Woods has been long awaited. Now that it’s here, it’s imperfect but very enjoyable and entertaining.
How many of you are familiar with the novel Anna Karenina? I’m sure a lot of you are. Mostly because it was required reading in high school in a lot of schools. Did you know that Anna Karenina has been adapted to the cinema a total of thirteen times including twice starring Greta Garbo? Now Anna Karenina returns to the big screen again directed by Joe Wright and with Keira Knightly as Anna. The question is can you make a movie that’s been done twelve times before winsome to present crowds?
The point of the movie wasn’t simply to tell the story of Anna Karenina again but to tell it in a creative and styled manner. At the beginning you could tell that this would be a movie with a different twist to telling the novel. I mean a novel that’s already been adapted to the big screen twelve times before needs to have the latest adaptation anything but redundant. It presents the scenarios of Anna as a stage and frequently going from scene to scene as going from stage to stage. It creates a lot of the acting and dancing in a stand-out method, even quirky and eccentric. It gives the audience the impression of what’s really going on even if they’re dancing or ‘not really’ having sex.
I’m sure this unique twist is what the director and scriptwriter had in mind. Both of which have already established themselves. Joe Wright has been renowned for directing Pride And Prejudice, Atonement, The Soloist and Hanna. Tom Stoppard has established himself in writing with a multitude of plays and has even won an Oscar for writing the screenplay of Shakespeare In Love. The film’s styling and sometimes quirky way of playing out the novel would remind many of Moulin Rouge. The only thing is it makes it look like they’re trying too hard to make this adaptation stand out and be original. There are many times in which the quirkiness and the stylings don’t work their best and we’re unsure whether the film is trying to portray a message, tell the story or just simply put on a show.