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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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Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By

Call Me By Your Name is the story of a son of a professor (played by Timothee Chalamet; right) who falls in love with an academic (played by Armie Hammer).

Call me by your name,

And I’ll call you by mine.

This year’s Best Picture nominees feature a wide variety of themes and subjects. Call Me By Your Name may get note about its gay subject matter, but it’s a lot more.

Elio is a 17 year-old American boy living with his father, a Jewish-American archaeology professor, and his Italian mother in his father’s summer getaway in Northern Italy in the summer of 1983. He has a passion for reading and is prodigious in playing the piano. During the summer, his father invites Oliver, a 24 year-old Jewish American graduate student, up for three months to help with his academic paperwork.

Elio’s first impressions of Oliver are not the best, especially since Elio has to give up his bedroom for him. He finds him arrogant, a show-off, and it annoys Elio when Oliver flirts with one of the local Italian girls he knows. Why should it matter to Elio? He has a girlfriend named Marzia.

However Elio and Oliver develop a friendship as the two spend a lot of time together. You don’t know if something’s happening between them or not. You’re tempted to think the latter as Elio is trying to get more sexual with Marzia and even talks about it at the dinner table. However it becomes obvious Elio is attracted to Oliver as Elio smells his swimsuit and masturbates. Elio makes the first move, but Oliver tells Elio he should not act on his feelings. Even a kiss at the post office doesn’t work on Oliver.

After being distant for a few days, Oliver gives Elio a note to meet him at a tree by midnight. The two kiss. The relationship grows more intimate and more sexual, but they have to keep it a secret, not knowing how their Jewish families will react. Meanwhile Marzia notices Elio has become more distant with her.

Then the time comes when Oliver’s stay is nearing its end. They don’t know what to do. The parents sense the relationship with them, but recommend the two spend a three-day trip in Bergamo. The trip eventually becomes their last intimate time together. Oliver leaves for the US and Elio returns home brokenhearted. Marzia gives him sympathy and agrees to stay friends and his father tells him he should be lucky because a true love like that is rare. A phone call from Oliver on Hanukah where Oliver discloses that he is to marry a woman, leaves Elio with mixed feelings over what should be but will never be.

The story is not as thick on the drama as the other Best Picture nominees. This is a story that simply unravels itself slowly and quietly. Nevertheless the events are consistent and they all fit within the story. This story bears a lot of similarities with Blue Is The Warmest Color where the protagonist is just becoming an adult and just learning of their same-sex attraction after believing they were hetero the whole time. Like Blue, the story is as much about the protagonist’s progression into adulthood and meeting their first same-sex love. Like Blue, the protagonist struggles with their same-sex attraction even as they pursue love with someone of the opposite sex. Also like Blue, it’s about a person of the same gender that sweeps them of their feet. Another element where it’s like Blue is that the story takes place along an artistic setting. While Blue is about Adele becoming infatuated with Emma through her paintings, it’s Elio becoming infatuated with Oliver in Northern Italy in an environment full of art: both natural and man-made. It’s also Oliver becoming infatuated with Elio through his readings and his piano playing. It’s a unique story how two young men– one who’s artistically-inclined and one who’s academically-inclined– both feel like polar opposites at the beginning, but come to love each other over time.

Another element in common with Blue is that it features a lot of elements one would commonly find in French films. We see how the imagery of the Northern Italian country side and even all the art and artifacts in the more urban areas play in with the story. We see how the elements of Oliver’s academia and Elio’s passion for the arts also help colorize the story and even heat up the romance. We also see the environment of the 1980’s and the music in the film adds to the story line. And we especially see how the theme of apricots plays into the romance. It goes from simple academia discussion to an element of their love. The film could have simply been titled Love And Apricots! Such background elements found here are common in French films as it helps provide a lot of value and background to the story and even the themes of the film.

However the biggest difference between Blue and Call Me By Your Name is that the story of Adele meeting Emma is more about meeting her first same-sex love and Emma being more like a chapter in Adele’s life. Call Me By Your Name is different because it’s a case where Olivier is more than Elio’s first same-sex love, Oliver becomes his soul-mate. The film is also a sad love story because it’s a case of what was meant to be can’t be. We don’t learn of the true divide of the two until the very end. While Mr. Perlman is supportive of Elio’s love to Oliver, Oliver has to marry as he knows his parents not only would disapprove, but send him to a psychiatrist for therapy. I won’t say the reason being because Oliver’s family’s Jewish, but more because the US in the early 1980’s was still very hostile towards homosexuality. That was it. Two soul mates from two different worlds that would face their big divide at the end.

The film is the accomplishment of the collaboration of director Luca Guadagnino and scriptwriter James Ivory. Both openly gay, they did a very good job of creating a story about meeting the love of one’s life and placing it in a glorious picturesque background that gives the story its charm and its feel. The film is also an accomplishment for young actor Timothee Chalamet. Most of the film revolved around Elio and Chalamet delivered an excellent job of a 17 year-old who learns of his sexuality through meeting the love of his life. That end scene where the film focuses on his face and his various emotions is as much the best part of Chalamet’s acting as it is a heartbreak for the audience to see.

Also excellent is the acting of Armie Hammer as Oliver. He portrays a man who first appears arrogant, but possesses an excellent gift of making his academia sound almost like poetry. It’s easy to see why Elio would be charmed to him. Also very good is Michael Stuhbarg. He first just appears in the movie simply as the father and a professor, but his characters fruition comes out at the end as he tells Elio of how happy he is Elio loved Oliver. The choreography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom was spot-on as it was the various camera angles and capturing the Italian beauty that was needed to make the story.

It’s funny how most people thought that Sherwin and Johnathan from the viral animated short In A Heartbeat were to be 2017’s top gay pair on film. Looks like Elio and Oliver overtook them in the end. They may not be as cute-as-a-button as Sherwin and Johnathan, but they are better at giving the romantic feel to their respective film.

Call Me By Your Name may be a gay-themed film, but it’s a lot more. It’s a film that will charm those who see it with its beauty and its story.