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 don’t know about you but live-action comedies didn’t fare so well at the box office this summer. The highest-grossing comedy of the summer was Central Intelligence with just over $127 million. The only other two comedies of the summer to gross over $100 million were Ghostbusters and Bad Moms. Have people lost their sense of humor? For this summary, I will review two movies: Ghostbusters and The Nice Guys.
The Nice Guys
I’ll start the focus on one movie I saw all the way back in May. A comedy I was hoping to do well at the box office but didn’t. I saw The Nice Guys because I felt we were long overdue for a crime comedy or a police comedy. I have to say that this was a funny movie and has to be this year’s overlooked gem.
It takes us back to the 1970’s not just to do with the clothes, hair and music but also of a 70’s thing few 70’s-set movies focus on: the abundance of porn. We often forget that the 1970’s was the sexual revolution’s biggest heyday. A decade of free love at its freest and pornography was prevalent even in the movie theatres. It was even okay back then to take a date to a porno.
Here, they make a crime story set in the deliriousness of the porn business. It doesn’t aim for one-liners like so many other comedies resort to. What it does is it makes comedy of the situation. A case of a private eye and an enforcer who become unlikely partners in trying to solve a murder and who is connected to it. Another humorous situation is at the Los Angeles Auto Show where a clip of the porno starring the murder victim is spliced in to the auto show film to the shock of all. The story even has ironies added into it like how the Holly March, daughter of private eye Holland March, is able to help solve some part of the crime with her know-how. Another irony is how a politician who wants to have the crime solve is actually a part of the instrumentation. It all adds up to a humorous story that will have you laughing at the situation.
The film also gives you this summer’s biggest WTH moment. That comes when the police interrogate a neighborhood boy who showed his penis to a neighboring porn director who was killed. That’s sexual abuse, right? When I saw the interrogation happening, I was expecting a scene of a sexual abuse victim. Instead, the boy comes across as excited as if his exposing could open up opportunity in porn in the future. That was so bizarre. Just reminds you that the sexual revolution of the 1970’s was that free.
Director Shane Black takes a break from directing superhero movies like Iron Man 3 by directing this crime comedy he co-wrote with Anthony Bagarozzi. It comes off as very humorous in a dark way. I’d like to think he succeeded. Russell Crowe was the right fit for enforcer Jackson Healy. He possessed the right ruggedness for the role. Doing crime comedy is something new for Ryan Gosling but he did a very good job as Holland March. The scene-stealer was young actress Angourie Rice who played daughter Holly March. She did a good job of going just a simple daughter of Holland to all of a sudden one who can best help trace the case and even help solve it, with providing some action of her own. Also a big surprise is seeing Kim Basinger as the politician. I admit it. Like your typical 80’s kid, I always picture Kim as the bombshell she’s most famous for. It was surprising to see her play a role of an older character. I’m not complaining. I think she did quite well.
It is too bad to see that it didn’t make too much at the box office: $57.3 million. There was a time a while back where crime comedies or dark crime dramas were a big hit. I remember the 1990’s were capable of churning out one such movie per year that would be a classic like 1994’s Pulp Fiction, 1995’s The Usual Suspects, 1996’s Fargo and 1997’s L.A. Confidential. Since then, it cooled down. I was hoping this movie would revive some interest in it and rediscover the humor of the crime comedy. Also I feel there’s another message being sent with the lack of success of the film. The 70’s retro in movies has now faded. I know it was very active from the 90’s carried into the 2000’s and showed some muscle at the beginning of this decade but it’s obvious 70’s retro has faded with time.
The Nice Guys is an overlooked comedy from the summer. It’s worth seeing if you have the chance.
Ghostbusters: Answer The Call
From retro 70’s to retro 80’s: the retro phenomenon that still has the most muscle despite retro 90’s encroaching. Now news last year of a Ghostbusters remake featuring an all-female ensemble of Ghostbusters seemed unorthodox at the time. One conservative filmmaker went as far as saying ‘My childhood is ruined.’ However I was willing to give it a chance. I mean this is 2016.
In order to differentiate itself from the original 1984 Ghostbusters, it gave itself the subtitle Answer The Call. Now the big challenge was to decide whether the film was a case of the ghostbusters starting up together or whether these four women were filling the shoes of the men before them. It was decided to be a story where the ghostbusters start fresh. It’s very tempting to compare it to the first Ghostbusters. Actually there’s no escaping it. If you compare the two side-by-side, you will notice a lot of differences. And not just simply the change of genders of the cast. The first is the humor. The new film has humor and lines that are more irreverent that the humor and jokes in the first. The second is the Ghostbuster-wannabe characters. One thing about the first is that the addition of nerd Louis Tully added to the humor of the film. Of course Rick Moranis always specialized in nerdy characters. Having a bimboy character who’s their receptionist play the Ghostbuster wannabe here didn’t fit as well. Plus he wasn’t even that funny. Another is the possessed character scene. I’m sure those of you would agree that the possession of Dana Barrett worked better than the possession of Abby Yates. Even the line “No Dana, only Zuul.” is way more memorable.
Despite the first Ghostbusters being better than the new one in many ways, the second one does have elements that are better than in the first one. The first and most obvious is the better special effects. The film was able to create better and more eye-catching ghosts than they were in the first one. Computer technology has made that big of advances over the years. Another was the rock concert scene. If there was one plus to the movie, it was that where the foursome have to battle a ghost while a rock band was performing. That added to the humor and made it enjoyable.
It’s clear from the start this is a group effort between Paul Feig, Katie Dippold and Melissa McCarthy. This is the third collaboration with the threesome where Feig directs and co-writes, Dippold co-writes and McCarthy acts in. Its often questionable who was the main lead role of the film: whether it was Kristen Wiig’s Erin Gilbert or if it was Melissa McCarthy’s Abby Yates. I know McCarthy’s star has grown bigger over the years. The addition of two other Saturday Night Live talents Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones make for a good mix of humor.
One thing to note is that personnel of the original Ghostbusters gladly came back for the revamp. There’s Ivan Reitman who’s the co-producer this time around. There’s Bill Murray who makes a cameo as a skeptic to the busters. Dan Aykroyd makes a cameo as a taxi driver, Annie Potts makes a cameo as a crabby hotel clerk, Ernie Hudson appears as Patty’s uncle Bill, even Sigourney Weaver makes a cameo appearance.
Ghostbusters: Answer The Call may not compare to the original. It’s either the freshness or the magic of the first that’s not there. Nevertheless it is enjoyable and does make for some good laughs.
And there’s my summary of the summer’s comedic movies with focus on the two. Hopefully the studios should be able to find the right funny stuff to get the live-action comedy back to being a summer hit next summer.
I’ll admit I saw Spotlight two months ago and I’ve been procrastinating at writing my review. Now that the Oscar nominations are out–actually only an hour ago– this is a better time than ever.
The film begins in the 1970’s of a priest being fired from his job as a teacher at a Catholic elementary school in Boston. Fast forward to 2001. The Boston Globe has a new editor, Marty Baron. He first learns of the investigative Spotlight team of the paper headed by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson.
Baron gives the Spotlight team a story to chase: a story of a priest sexual abusing children and Cardinal Bernard Law knowing about it and doing nothing about it. It first starts as a pursuit on a single priest who was continuously moved around from school to school. Over time it they would uncover that there were many priests who also committed acts of sexual abuse on school children and they were all covered up by the Archdiocese.
This is one story they had to get to the bottom of. However they’re limited in terms of resources. Plus they need permission to access sealed documents and have a trial or even an inquiry happen and they doubt they can get it from a Catholic judge. They talk with a head of a victims rights group who himself was abused, they talk to other abuse victims, they talk to a lawyer who’s handling the cases of some of the victims and they even find through an ex-priest who tried to rehabilitate pedophile priests that there could be as 90 sex offenders in the clergy. Further research uncovers additional priests moved about upon their actions being revealed and being listed as ‘relocated’ or ‘resigned.’
In September 2001 it appears the Spotlight team is finally ready to release the story. Then 9/11 happens which makes every other news story in the world take a backseat and cause even a further delay of the story being printed. However the wait works for the better as one of the Spotlight reporters, Michael Rezendes, uncovers proof through publicly available documents that Law knew all about the abuse going on and ignored it. Then a major victory. The judge grants them the right to look into sealed documents. Just as they are about to print the story, Robinson confesses he published a list of pedophile priests in 1993 but he never followed up on it. As the story is published, it creates history.
I’m sure that some people would be nervous about this film and declare it ‘anti-Catholic.’ In fact if I were a conservative conspiracy theorist, I would say Spotlight is a film released by an anti-Catholic director who wonders where all the Catholic hate from liberals went once Pope Francis came to power and wants Spotlight to bring it back. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist nor am I a conservative pundit. In fact the film has received positive feedback from Vatican Radio and even the current Cardinal of Boston praised it in showing how the Archdiocese had to confront its wrong.
I will say that I’ve seen bigger even more savage attacks on the Catholic Church in films in the past, especially from Martin Scorsese. In fact I remember watching 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters where the nuns were depicted as total monsters. I feel films nowadays are less anti-Catholic than that of 20 years ago or even 40 years ago. In fact one thing I give the film credit for is that it looks at all sides. It may portray Cardinal Law as a conniver but it wasn’t hard on depiction of the priests. In fact one scene that stuck out to me was when one of the alleged priests was interviewed. He not only appeared confused in how he didn’t know what sexual abuse was but admitted that he was raped as a boy. That not only shocked me but left me wondering how many of the abusive priests were themselves sexually abused as a boy?
On a personal note, I will admit that when I first saw the film, I left the theatre asking myself “Jon, why did you return to the Catholic Church?” It was a dilemma for days but it did solve itself over time. In fact shortly after, I wrote on my Facebook page: “I gave the Catholic Church a second chance in 2003 and it better not blow it this time.” I will never excuse a priest for sexually abusing any child. I believe they should be brought to justice. In fact, Pope Benedict clarified the issue when he said: “Forgiveness is not a replacement for justice.” I know you can’t take back the past however you can improve the future. The Catholic Church has not become blind to the issue of sexual abuse. In fact I learned from one man who tried to enter into education for the priesthood he had to get a criminal record check, an HIV test and a psychiatric assessment. I’m happy that the Catholic Church is taking the best preventative measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
In fact off topic from the film, I will admit that sexual abuse and the various Diocese’s and Archdiocese’s bad handling of it is a problem but I will also say that it’s a problem that goes far beyond the Catholic Church. It’s a problem that exists in other churches as well, it exists within certain families, it exists within school and it even exists within children’s sports programs. In fact this decade’s biggest sexual-abuse-and-cover-up story came not from a Catholic institution but from coach Jerry Sandusky and the cover up from Penn State university. Makes you wonder why the priesthood gets a lot of defamation from the sexual abuse of those while children’s sports coaches don’t get the same defamation. A sex offender is a sex offender no matter what their profession or even if it’s not to do with a profession at all. Same thing with Universities, especially since it’s only come to light that colleges have a known rape problem but they’re doing next to nothing about it.
Back to the film, I think the biggest thing the film was focusing on was the bad marriage of church and state. Separation of church and state is enforced in the American constitution but it’s not to say it does find its way mixed into politics one way or the other. In fact I don’t think Spotlight attacks the Catholic Church as a whole but actually attack the Archdiocese of Boston. The film presents how the Archdiocese of Boston has such a huge influence over the city. We’re talking about a city with a huge percentage of Catholics and with a history of the Catholic Church giving, providing and influencing the city. No wonder a city like Boston would have such high regard for the Archdiocese. No wonder most Bostonians would look at priests as father figures. No wonder also would that present the biggest difficulty in terms of getting the ugly truth out, especially with people having a high regard for the Church in power and with a Cardinal sweet-talking those determined to get the truth.
The theme of sexual abuse may be very prevalent in the film but I think the biggest focal point of the film was to show a group of reporters uncovering a scandalous story and bringing it to print. One thing is the film doesn’t make like the Spotlight team are the blemish-free good guys of the film. It’s made known near the beginning of the film that this information was given to them five years earlier. They themselves made a big mistake of their own by delaying the story. Sure, they did a whole whack of effort to finally bring it to press in 2002 but they could have done it sooner. I think that was the whole thing of Spotlight is that it was a movie disinterested in making the image of a hero out of anybody. Besides we already hear of the mistakes of having an image of somebody is a bad thing as one abuse victim admitted he looked at priests to be like God. I’m sure millions more have had that deluded image of the priest being like God in their head. However it also shows how easily people can be feel a sense of betrayal by a Church when such atrocities occur. You can’t really blame them for being that disheartened.
I give top credit to director/writer Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer for directing a complex film that’s like a bunch of pieces of a puzzle that had to be put together. This is a story that’s set in the Spotlight room of the Boston Globe and set in various other places throughout and they had to both show all the different parts of the story and make them come together from time to time. They did a good job of making this complex story come together without straying off into unimportant territory. Also they did a very good job of writing a story of sexual abuse that was watchable. I’ve seen other films of sexual abuse that were more explicit like 1992’s The Boys Of St. Vincent. Mind you it was a 90’s thing to do explicit entertainment because envelope-pushing was all the rage back then because 1; you could never put enough nails in the coffin of the Hays Code and 2; because back then softening of scenes or leaving such things out was considered a form of ‘denial’ in art. Anyways these are not the 90’s anymore and watchability is values more. I’m sure if they showed scenes of abuse in the film, it would make it somewhat unwatchable for many. I feel they made a good choice of limiting the topic of abuse to conversations of victims with the journalists. Especially since the top point of the film is how they brought the story to press. Besides I don’t consider compromising elements in a film for the sake of making it more watchable to be a filmmaking weakness. It’s not the 90’s anymore and Tom McCarthy’s not among the likes of Lars Von Trier.
As for acting, there were a lot of great individual performances most notably from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams but none of them owned the film. In fact another top quality of the film is that it’s a combined effort from all the actors to play parts that don’t steal the show and add to the story telling by making it look like a unified effort. Even acting of the smaller roles that that of the abuse victims were excellent and added to the story. Overall this not simply a film that’s well-crafted. This is a film that does capture your intrigue. It’s a combined accomplishment from McCarthy, Singer and the actors.
Spotlight isn’t strictly about the incident. It’s about getting the story to the presses and the battles the Boston Globe had to go through to break the silence and finally get the word out. Keeps you interested from start to finish.