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VIFF 2018 Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can Ever Forgive

Melissa McCarthy plays author-turned-forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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.

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‘Hot Problems’ And The Charm Of Awful

‘Hot Problems’ girls Lauren Willey and Drew Garrett

I was watching the latest React video on Youtube from the Fine Bros’ various React shows: Teens React To Hot Problems. Actually first I paused the video after ten seconds so I can hear Hot Problems for myself.  As I was listening to the intro of that video which will soon hit 30 million views, I noticed that the number of dislikes was more than 90% of the likes. That had me wondering. Then I heard it for myself. It was so dreadful I had enough after two minutes. I could not blame the teens that were irritated with it. Then the song  grew on me: I actually liked it because of how awful it was. I’m sure I’m not alone, but why does this happen?

I’ll admit there are times when our society is charmed by things that are downright awful. Possibly the reason why we have a term called ‘guilty pleasure’. I’m sure it has existed since the beginning of time. We should remember that there was such thing as B-movies when movies started coming out. Some of the best of the worst came either during the 30’s or the 50’s. It was movies people loved because of its awfulness. I’m sure B-movies continued in the 60’s but who remembers those?

Then came the 70’s. This was the decade when awful really started to take off. B-movies became ‘cult films’ with all sorts of blood, gore, exploitation and purposely-bad acting. There was also the raunchy Rocky Horror Picture Show: a musical where the house of Frankenstein meets the sexual revolution that made no real sense. TV also had its variety of bad taste to offer too. Remember the $1.98 Beauty Show and The Gong Show? Yeah, I especially remember the latter. Even now I love watching clips of old Gong Show acts on Youtube. It’s my guilty pleasure.

Awful had a bit of a lull in the 80’s or 90’s but there was the occasional hit that was loved for its awfulness, like the infantile man/boy Pee-Wee Herman or the sitcom Married With Children. Those who saw Married With Children would remember it for its awful episodes, awfully acted superstock-like characters and very off writing as much as it was for its raunchiness. Nevertheless it was all those factors why people loved it. On the opposite side, there was Saved By The Bell: a Disney Channel show that found its way on NBC in 1989. Its lame writings, characters and over-the-top cutesy scenarios were eaten up by young teens and preteens and help pave the way for many fluffy sugar-coated Disney Channel shows that have become phenomenons in the past 7 years.

However it seems like in the 21st Century, bad taste and awful have aimed to become either legendary or competitive, or both. It seems like in a multimedia world we live in that has so much to offer, one has to stand out above the rest. That even includes performances of bad and terrible. And it’s produced some legends too along the way. I don’t know the first 21st Century instance of bad being catchy but I assume it’s the 2003 movie The Room. It’s so bad it earned its own Rocky Horror like following. The difference being Rocky Horror was basically bad acting and bad writing done professionally. The Room is just completely amateurish from the acting to the writing to the stunts to the cinematography. I can’t see a single trace of professionalism in it. Nevertheless it was The Room’s pathetic awfulness that garnered its cult following.

2004 would see the temporary stardom of non-singer William Hung; the right no-talent at the right time. He arrived right while the nation was so fixated on American Idol shelling out the next big thing in pop music with contestants groomed and dressed to perfection and voices pitch perfect. Hung didn’t have the look at all and he sounded dreadful with his version of Ricky Martin’s She Bangs. But his horrid audition was catchy enough for him to garner a fan following including the release of a disc tiled Inspiration and numerous talk show appearances. Weird how a singer could become so famous for their awfulness and imperfections. Today William is out of music altogether and now works for the LA County Sherriff’s Department.

Then along came this thing called Youtube in 2005. Youtube went from being a channel that simply showed home movies to also changing the fame game. People could become famous for simply saying things like “Leave Britney alone,” or “Charlie bit my finger.” It was a place musicians can play their own music which would pave the way for the popularity of Chocolate Rain. It was also where a teenager could become hugely famous for a hyperactive 6 year-old character named Fred.

Youtube was also seen as a domain for professional skilled musicians to show their stuff and hopefully get their big break. It worked for launching the careers of recent teen phenoms like Justin Bieber and Cody Simpson. It also allowed a 13 year-old girl named Rebecca Black perform a song called Friday. Tailor-made by an amateur music producer with a $5000 promise to her parents it would make her a star, it was done with cheesy lyrics, Rebecca Black singing either monotoned, nasally or to auto-tune, and the producer rapping. The song was placed on Youtube back in February of 2011 and has received 31,000,000 hits so far and 810,000 ‘thumbs’: almost 80% are dislikes. It worked to propel Rebecca to fame but the kind of fame with a lot of ridicule. Yet its awfulness also started a huge following with a lot of satire videos to follow. A lot of people will admit the awfulness was catchy. Even Lady Gaga thinks Rebecca Black is a genius.

Now 2012 brings a new chapter to awful entertainment and yes, it’s courtesy of Youtube. Two California high school girls going by the name of Double Take recorded a song entitled Hot Problems about the problems girls that are labeled ‘hot’ go through and had the video placed on the OldBaileyProductions channel on April 15th. Since then the song has gone viral to the point it has already received 12,000,000 hits. The reactions are mostly negative as the song has received over 520,000 dislikes and not even 40,000 likes. It even has many people comparing the song to Friday in terms of its awfulness. It has cheesy lyrics and the singing of the two girls sound like they don’t have a hint of skill or unison. Yes, it too has had its own spoof videos too. Some are even calling it the ‘worst song ever’. Didn’t they say the same thing about Friday last year?

All parties involved in this have responded to the feedback from the song. OldBaileyProductions responded saying they have nothing to do with the song and that they created the video as a favor for a sibling of a friend. The two girls of Double Take, Drew Garrett and Lauren Willey, also responded to the feedback to their ‘masterpiece of maladroit’. They admit they were not good singers and that they were just simply ‘talk-singing’. They also said they made the video to simply have something funny for their friends and didn’t mean anything from it. Hey, at least they’re not desperate for fame the way Rebecca Black and her parents were. Also unlike Rebecca Black, they’re brushing all negative criticism aside. They are heading to college with career plans for real careers but they do admit that they’re ‘open’ to careers as songwriters. Also they admit they don’t consider themselves ‘hot’.

Nevertheless it’s a surprise how another awful song or awful act gets a following. I’m sure that in this Youtube world, there will be more to come. Who knows? Maybe next year we might have a new ‘worst song ever’. You gotta love this planet.

WORK CITED:

“’Hot Problems’ Dubbed Worst Song Of The Year.” ABC News.go.com. 2012. ABC News. 20 April 2012. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/entertainment/2012/04/hot-problems-dubbed-worst-song-of-the-year/>