Seaside


Victim or villain?

(2018) Suspense (Gravitas VenturesAriana DeBose, Matt Shingledecker, Steffanie Leigh, Sharon Washington, Jana Lee Hamblin, Haley Talbot, Bob Olin, Brandt Leeds, Victoria Blake, Jennie Vaughn, Jennifer Mekanas. Directed by Sam Zalutsky

 

The thing about soap operas is that they aren’t very subtle. They are lots of other things – outrageous, sometimes cheesy, sometimes erotic, often implausible but they generally aren’t boring. Those things work well in the soap opera oeuvre; outside of it, they can be deadly.

Daphne (DeBose) is leading a double life. She lives with her mother Angela (Washington) who is on the cusp of losing their home. Angela is disabled and somewhat broken. Daphne also has a boyfriend, Roger (Shingledecker) who is fabulously wealthy but whose father would disinherit him in a heartbeat if he knew that Roger was dating the daughter of his ex-nanny. Oh, didn’t I mention that Angela used to work for Roger’s dad?

In any case, Daddy dearest soon passes away and Roger isn’t exactly in mourning. Gleeful might be more accurate. He’s virtually rubbing his hands in anticipation of the millions he’s about to inherit and that’s when his dad plays one last cruel prank on his son; he leaves him a beach house on the remote Oregon coast and leaves the cash to any heirs Roger might sire legitimately.

So Daphne and Roger move to the beach house which Daphne keeps secret from Angela. In fact, she kept Roger secret from her mom. But no time for that now – Roger is ready to settle down and tie the knot. Only Daphne is beginning to see some disturbing signs; Roger is drinking more and more heavily and getting more verbally abusive by the day. Susanna (Leigh) shows up and it turns out that she and Roger used to be an item until Susanna got pregnant at which point Roger dropped her off at the local abortion clinic and high-tailed it out of town.

So with Daphne beginning to get more and more unsettled about Roger’s past and more importantly, her own future, Daphne soon begins to show that she’s not so helpless as she led Roger to believe.

This is quite the potboiler and maybe the world needs more of those. Cinematographer Philip A. Anderson tends to keep things in muted colors and the sky looks like there’s always a storm on the way but it never quite arrives. What the movie lacks is dramatic tension; there are plenty of twists and turns as you would expect from a decent thriller, but some strain the boundaries of incredulity and most are of the evil twin variety.

The cast here mainly have stage experience and little in front of the camera and it shows. The acting tends to be pretty broad and overdone. Good film acting requires more subtlety. DeBose shows some real potential as a lead actress, although she is given a fairly thankless role. The more we see of her with feckless Roger who oozes entitlement from every pore, the more we wonder what the hell she sees in him in any case.

I have to admit that there were some moments that worked well in the film but overall it doesn’t have that edge-of-the-seat feel that a good suspense movie generates. I can give it a mild recommendation and it isn’t too hard to find on a variety of streaming choices, but I can’t really say it’s worth the effort to track it down.

REASONS TO SEE: Blanche gives a solid performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Has a bit of a soap opera feel to it.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s profanity, drug use and some sexual situations here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeBose ws nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and has been cast as Anita in the upcoming Steven Spielberg remake of West Side Story.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Long Lost
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Heiresses

Tomorrow, Maybe


Father doesn’t always know best.

(2017) Drama (Random MediaRobert Blanche, Bethany Jacobs, Grant Davis, Brian Sutherland, Robert McKeehan, Garfield Wedderburn, Erin Hagen, Pamela O’Hare, Kyle Vahan, Todd A. Robinson, John Branch, Roy Frank Kirk 1st, Jeffrey Arrington, Jace Daniel, Alysse Fozmark. Directed by Jace Daniel

 

Making amends is no easy thing. It is, first and foremost, an admission of wrongdoing, taking ownership of mistreatment. Taking ownership of our less proud moments is difficult even for the saintliest among us. The hardest part, however, is often getting those we have wrong to allow us to make amends in the first place.

Lloyd (Blanche) has just been released from prison and is a changed man  He realizes full well that he has wasted most of his life to petty criminality and drug abuse. The relationship with his daughter Iris (Jacobs) is certainly strained; he essentially abandoned her early on and she has been disappointed by him again and again and again, ad nauseam.

Lloyd is looking to leave his past behind him and start a new life on the straight and narrow. In so doing, he hopes to get a second chance with his daughter and become a part of her life. She is understandably reluctant to trust her dad but gradually his sincerity begins to win her over.

He’s picked a pretty good time to return to her life; her husband Bobby (Davis), a cop, has developed a savage drinking problem and is spiraling out of control. He has begun to get violent and Iris doesn’t know what to do about it. Lloyd wants to help salvage things with her husband but things get so bad that Iris kicks Bobby to the curb. Bobby is growing more irrational by the day and blames Lloyd for the issues between him and Iris, believing that Lloyd is turning his daughter against him. The three are on a collision course with tragedy if they’re not careful.

Actually, the film is essentially told in flashback form with audiences being told somewhat of the crowning incident which I will not spoil here even though the filmmakers sort of do. That’s a bit of a tactical error; the director/writer Daniel is trying to pull off a twist in the plot but I think it would have been more effective if we didn’t have an inkling of what all this was leading to.

Otherwise, the movie gets kudos for tackling domestic abuse in a realistic way as well as the issues of making amends. Yeah, at times the film goes for easy answers rather than slogging through some rough emotional terrain while at other times Daniel seems quite willing to do that. Those moments tend to be the highlights of the film.

The three leads need to deliver powerhouse performances and they aren’t quite up to the task. Blanche fares best, giving Lloyd a rough-hewn charm, a man clearly reaching out and a bit confused by the vagaries of life. It’s hard not to root for him and while we clearly understand that his difficulties are largely his own doing, you end up hoping his daughter will give him that chance he so desperately desires.

Jacobs is less successful but truth be told is given less to work with, even though she’s the emotional center of the film. As a woman who has been consistently let down by the men in her life both as a child and as an adult, there is a wariness and a weariness to her manner but at times Jacobs is a bit flat in her line delivery. Davis is a little bit in the middle although it is essentially a thankless role; Bobby turns out to be a fairly irredeemable a-hole so even when we learn the source of his pain, his rage and his drinking, there’s not a lot of sympathy there.

The movie’s tiny budget is evident; often the scenes are underlit or might have used a few more takes. Still, as independent dramas go this one isn’t bad. It’s not Oscar material by a long stretch but it at least has a certain amount of ambition and seems to have at least honest intentions. Not all indie films can claim that.

REASONS TO SEE: Blanche gives a solid performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Has a tendency to go for easy answers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three leads all at one time or another appeared in the TV series Grimm.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleeping With the Enemy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Peanut Butter Falcon

Teacher (2019)


You might not want to forget your homework in this teacher’s class.

(2019) Thriller (Cinedigm) David Dastmalchian, Kevin Pollak, Curtis Edward Jackson, Esme Perez, Matthew Garry, Helen Joo Lee, Alejandro Raya, Cedric Young, Ilysa Fradin, John Hoogenakker, Karin Anglin, Sammy A. Publes, Charin Alvarez, Sam Straley, Bryce Dannenberg, Patrick Weber, Juan Lozada, Shawna Waldron, David Parkes, Sarab Kamoo. Directed by Adam Dick

 

Bullying has been a serious problem in American high schools for many years now. Despite efforts to curb the practice, there seems to be an ongoing issue of strong kids persecuting weaker kids – although who is truly strong and who is truly weak is not always easily evident.

James Lewis (Dastmalchian) is an English teacher trying to get across the intricacies of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to bored kids at Prairie Trail High School, in a tony suburb of Chicago. James is in the midst of a contentious divorce and is showing signs of alcoholism and rage – as the holes punched in the wall of his apartment attest. Still, he’s managing to keep it together and is on the verge of being granted tenure.

When a sociopathic rich kid named Tim Cooper (Jackson) starts bullying the nerdy Preston (Garry), a smart kid as well as the photographer for the school paper, Lewis isn’t happy about the development. Things begin to escalate though when Preston gets a girlfriend – shy, unselfconfident Daniela (Perez) – and Tim, also the star pitcher for the baseball team, gets two victims for the price of one. Mr. Lewis tries to intervene but a litigation-shy administration in the form of the school principal (Young) put the kibosh on any sort of disciplinary action. It doesn’t help that Tim’s dad (Pollak) is stupid rich and is one of those sorts who is used to getting his way by any means necessary.

\Mr. Lewis as it turns out was severely bullied when he was in school and to top it off, his father was an abusive alcoholic to make matters worse. Between the stress of everything, the flashbacks to his own tortured childhood and the disappointment that his life hasn’t gone the way he expected to lead to a reckoning that nobody could have expected – except for those who have watched a thriller or two in their time.

\Dick in his first feature-length film brings up some interesting and salient points about bullying, it’s effect on the psyche and society’s unwillingness to address it. The question is asked “when is violence justified” and the answer is obviously not an easy one nor is it treated as such here. Dick is a director who has some ideas and that’s always a good thing.

The problem here is that the story is just way too predictable. You can kind of figure out where this is all going in the first fifteen minutes. While Dick has some good ideas, he delivers them in a fairly hackneyed plot that telegraphs most of its twists. It does take a while for things to get moving at a really decent clip, so the attention-challenged might not take to this one as well.

Still, Dick gets the benefit of some really solid performances, many of them from largely unknown actors. Dastmalchian, who to date has mainly done supporting roles, shows he can handle lead roles with enough screen presence to light up China. Pollak, who started his career as a comic and impressionist, has proven himself a solid dramatic actor over the years and has never been better than he is here, both jovial and civilized as well as intimidating and brutish. The guy deserves some plum roles, casting directors.

Overall, this is a nifty film but not one that is going to rock your world particularly. I like some of the choices the filmmakers make here but other decisions seem to play it too safe. I do think that Dick has potential as a director; this isn’t a bad first film at all, but it’s not one that I believe will be an essential part of his filmography when all is said and done.

REASONS TO SEE: Dastmalchian shows some good presence and Pollak is always strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a short film with the same title that Dick made two years prior to the feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Class of 1984
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Leo DaVinci: Mission Mona Lisa

Bird Box


Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.

(2018) Horror (Netflix) Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, Trevante Rhodes, Rosa Salazar, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Colson Baker, BD Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Vivien Lyra Blair, Julian Edwards, Parminder Nagra, Rebecca Pidgeon, Amy Gumenick, Taylor Handley, Happy Anderson, Kyle Beatty, Ashley A. Alvarado. Directed by Susanne Bier

 

The secret to a great horror movie is to never reveal the monster too early. What we can’t see is often the scariest creature of them all.

Civilization has collapsed but it’s not a plague of zombies that has done it; rather, an unseen monster that when it establishes eye contact causes the viewer to commit suicide. Essentially, nobody can go out of their house because once you see the monster, you’re toast within moments. In the early scenes of the movie we see precisely how quickly things devolve into chaos as people ram their cars into immovable objects, stab themselves to death and calmly open the door of a burning car and sitting down in the passenger scene, immolating themselves.

Malorie (Bullock) is a take-charge kind of woman who finds herself in this environment. Pregnant, she is on her way from a routine doctor appointment when things go to Hell in a handbasket. She takes refuge in the home of a curmudgeonly novelist who watches his wife kill herself after she beckons Malorie and other stranded motorists into her fortress-like home. Her husband Douglas (Malkovich) is none too pleased about the new guests but admits grudgingly that they bring special skills to the table, including ex-military construction crew chief (Rhodes) who develops a relationship with Malorie, grandmotherly Sheryl (Weaver), conspiracy theorist and grocery clerk Charlie (Howery) and a few others who come and go, some with less-than-noble intentions.

This culminates in a harrowing journey Malorie takes with her children (identified only as Boy (Edwards) and Girl (Blair) five years after the fact in which she rows a canoe down a river while blindfolded, hoping to make it to a rumored sanctuary in Northern California which is mostly shown in flash-forwards.

Bullock is brilliant here in a rare appearance in a horror film for the actress (she doesn’t like horror movies and generally doesn’t take roles in them – her last horror movie was more than 20 years previously). Malkovich chews the scenery here in typical fashion while Weaver is competent as is Paulson. Sadly, the two juveniles playing Boy and Girl are as bland as their names would suggest; they spend most of the film trying to act rather than trying to project themselves into their characters. This is a problem for many juvenile actors and actresses which tend to lead to stiff performances which we get here.

We never see the creatures responsible although we see the carnage they cause. It is a good thing that we don’t; they are far more terrifying that way. Bier is a respected director having done most of her work in her native Denmark; this is her first genre film and she attacks it as she would any drama, allowing the emotions of the characters set the tone, making the movie more interesting than the average creature feature.

This was one of the most popular films released by Netflix last year; it even inspired another stupid dangerous internet phenomenon known as “the bird box challenge” in which people try to navigate a distance (indoors and/or outside) while blindfolding leading to a raft of injuries, some of which required visits to the Emergency Room. While the tension Bier builds is unbelievable, the story is just the opposite. While this isn’t the kind of horror film that uses creature effects to set it’s gory tone, although there is some gore. This is the kind of horror movies that even those who aren’t fond of the genre can see.

REASONS TO SEE: The tension is unrelenting. Another great concept, even if it is a little bit derivative. Some very smart decisions made by the director.
REASONS TO AVOID: The juvenile actors are a liability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and gore, profanity, adult themes and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bullock is actually blindfolded during the scenes in which her character is (which makes up about half the film) and refused to allow eye holes to be cut, causing her to bump into the camera more than once during shooting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Quiet Place
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Spy Behind Home Plate

Stray (2019)


Empty factories are always creepiest at night.

(2019) Supernatural Crime Thriller (Screen Media) Karen Fukuhara, Christine Woods, Miyavi, Ross Partridge, Takayo Fischer, Saki Miyata, Brandon Brooks, Brian Carroll, Jamiah Brown, Kiran Deol, Eunice Chiweshe Goldstein, Alex Hyner, Nicolas Jung, Fahad Olayan, Geoffrey H. Russell, April Lind, Sonia Jackson, Heather Pache, Cecilia Benevich. Directed by Joe Sill

 

Maybe the most interesting thing about police work is that you never know what you’re going to get when you get on the job. That also may be the most dangerous thing about police work as well.

Detective Murphy (Woods) is getting back to work as a homicide detective after an extended leave of absence. It’s bad enough that her ex-husband Jake (Partridge) is also now her boss but she is immediately called to a grisly murder scene in which a woman has apparently been burned to death, but then the weirdness begins. First of all, the woman isn’t burned – she’s petrified. The body has also been dated as over a thousand years old despite the fact that the victim had been seen just the previous day.

The victim’s daughter, Nori (Fukuhara) is eager to discover what happened to her mother but the victim’s mother (Fischer) is less forthcoming. Murphy’s bad news instincts are on overdrive so she cultivates a relationship with Nori. The two women are linked by tragedies in their immediate past and the two begin to bond. Murphy discovers that Nori has strange psychic powers that manifest when she is emotionally stressed. Not only that but those powers run in the family; her grandmother has them, her mother has them and her estranged brother Jim (Miyavi) has them.

As Murphy chases down the killer it is clear that Nori is the next target and by extension Murphy who has put the girl under her protection much to the dismay of Jake but how does one protect a girl from powers so evil and so strong that they can turn a human being into stone in the blink of an eye?

Sill makes his feature film debut here and it’s really not a bad one. There are elements that really work here and even though this is a low-budget affair, the CGI is actually pretty good. What isn’t as good is the procedural aspects which take a few liberties with logic and common sense.

There are some strong performances here, particularly by Woods who places a deeply wounded and self-medicating burned out cop, a role that normally goes to middle-aged white guys. Adding the feminine factor to the mix (not to mention that Murphy is a total badass) is a welcome deviation from standard crime thriller clichés. The supernatural element isn’t exactly groundbreaking but it does add a nice twist; however, the nature of Nori’s powers are not really clear for the most part and that can be frustrating.

This isn’t a bad film at all and there are some really good moments. Cinematographer Greg Cotton makes excellent use of shadows and darkness and a color palate that goes well with both. While the movie won’t exactly rock your world, it won’t bore you either. Sill definitely someone to keep an eye on and those who like their movies on the eerie side might actually find it a worthwhile pick.

REASONS TO SEE: There is a unique lyricism present here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The police procedural aspect is a little dicey.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fukuhara is best-known in the States for her portrayal of Katana in Suicide Squad.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deliver Us From Evil
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Pahokee

Rockaway


The young cast of Rockaway.

(2018) True Life Coming of Age Drama (Paladin/Gravitas) Keidrich Sallati, Maxwell Apple, James DiGiacomo, Tanner Flood, Colin Critchley, Harrison Wittmeyer, Nolan Lyons, Sophia Rose, Wass Stevens, Marjan Neshat, Frankie J. Alvarez, Wendall Lloyd, Nicholas J. Coleman, Jake Taylor, Luke Guldan, Drew Powell, Dan Puck, Christy Escobar, Samantha Cocozza. Directed by John J. Budion

 

NOTE: If you haven’t seen this movie yet, skip the rest of the review down to the last paragraph and just read that. Basically going through almost any element of the plot or evaluation of the various elements of the film may spoil your experience of it. If you’ve already seen it, read on…

There are plenty of coming of age dramas out there; films that depict a season or a year in the life of the lead character which becomes critical to shaping them into what they eventually become. Often these films are viewed largely through a sepia lens, the tones of summer and autumn becoming golden and sun-dappled with the warm refraction of memory. It is difficult not to compare those celluloid memories to your own.

Anthony (Sallati) and John (Apple) are a couple of kids growing up in a small town on Long Island long since immortalized by the Ramones but when this is set, 1994, the boys have bigger fish to fry. Their drunken stepfather (Stevens) beats on their long-suffering mom (Neshat) and on the boys themselves; when the younger John comes home with a slightly and easily mended shirt, dear old dad smacks the boy upside the head and not in a friendly, dad fashion but in a mean drunk fashion with the express intent to intimidate.

Still, there are things that the boys have to look forward to – their beloved New York Knicks are in the midst of an unlikely run into the NBA Finals against the heavily favored Houston Rockets. While Patrick Ewing was the ostensible star of the team, the player who had captured both of their hearts (especially John’s) and much of New York City as well was blue collar shooting guard John Starks.

They also have a plan to murder their stepfather, involving a broken light fixture, a whole lot of tennis balls, and a boiler. Whenever their stepfather is drunk and arguing (and smacking around) their mom which is nearly every night, Anthony soothes his plucky but timid little brother with tales of Mr. Doo, who is anthropomorphized poo and the stinkiest stool in town.  Anthony is extremely protective of his little brother; following the torn shirt incident, Anthony swears to John that their stepdad will never touch him again.

The two boys lean on each other exclusively and while Anthony is very affectionate with his mom, he has no illusions that she will ever get rid of the monster in her bedroom and knows he will have to do it if the family is to survive. However, into this horrifying situation comes a group of guys who become almost like family – the leader Billy (Wittmeyer), intelligent and thoughtful Brian (Flood), small tough-talking Dom (DiGiacomo) and motormouth Sal (Critchley) who clearly went to the Vinnie Barbarino School of Charm.

The boys will bond over bicycles, baseball games, the mystery of boobs and the improbable run of the Knicks and a deep friendship will result. It’s a bond that will last a lifetime, but they could have no way of knowing the type of curveball that will be thrown their way.

For some reason after reading the synopsis of the movie I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about seeing it but I was pleasantly surprised that this is actually a solid film. It’s not a movie that sheds any particularly novel light on domestic abuse, although the matter-of-fact tone it takes about it gives the viewer an idea of how a family in the grip of an unpredictable drunk bully suffers through uncertainty over just when he will erupt and what will trigger it. Walking on eggshells doesn’t even begin to describe it.

That said, the coming of age aspect of the movie has all the right feels and while the end of the movie becomes anti-climactic after a fashion (the big emotional scene that precedes it tends to drain the viewer) the story keeps the viewer largely engaged. There feels like lately a tendency to make movies run a bit longer than the story supports it; this one runs exactly as long as it needs to be.

They don’t really do a great job of re-creating the era; some of the cars parked at the side of the road and in parking lots and driveways were manufactured well after 1994 (imagine if in American Grafitti there were AMC Pacers and Chevy El Caminos parked at the sock hop. The amount of years that separated 1955 from 1973 is a little less than 1994 until 2018 – 18 years versus 24 years for the math-challenged.

The movie rests strongly on the shoulders of the juvenile actors; other than the mom and the stepdad there are almost no adults visible in the film. The problem with most juvenile actors is that they try to act and that’s what happens here; the performances come off as mainly stiff and forced. They would have benefited from a hand at the helm that would calm them down and elicit performances that feel less like performances. It doesn’t help that most of the characters are essentially one-dimensional. Even John, the stand-in for writer/director Budion, doesn’t have a ton of depth to him beyond his obsession with Starks, his devotion to his big brother and his terror of his father. Anthony comes off as nearly too good to be true; he is the emotional center of the movie without a doubt but even he sometimes feels more like an archetype than a real person.

I liked this movie a lot more than I expected to and that’s not easy to do. It snuck up on me and maybe that’s the best way to approach it. If you read all the way through the review to this point and haven’t seen the film yet (ignoring the advice I gave you at the very beginning), this is still a film worthy of seeing but the experience you have with it, having soaked in what I’ve already written about it, will be much less meaningful than if you followed my advice. If you skipped down to this paragraph, by all means stop what you’re doing and stream the movie on whichever service you prefer (see below) and then come back and re-read the review. See if you don’t agree.

REASONS TO GO: This is a coming of age movie with an edge and has all the feels you need.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the young actors try too hard and end up with performances that don’t feel true.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and domestic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Budion began his career as a special effects supervisor, working on such films as Beasts of No Nation and The Grand Hotel Budapest. This is his first feature as a director and the film is loosely based on events from his own childhood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play,  iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sandlot
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Anthem of a Teenage Prophet

Can You Ever Forgive Me?


Melissa McCarthy awaits that call from the Academy.

(2018) Biographical Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Gregory Korostishevsky, Jane Curtin, Stephen Spinella, Christian Navarro, Pun Badhu, Erik LaRay Harvey, Brandon Scott Jones, Shae D’lyn, Rosal Colon, Anna Deavere Smith, Marc Evan Jackson, Roberta Wallach, Tina Benko, Sandy Rosenberg, Kevin Carolan, Mary McCann. Directed by Marielle Heller

 

It’s a tough old world out there and anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something. Sometimes we find success only to have it snatched away from us and before long, desperation begins to set in as the bills begin to pile up.

Lee Israel (McCarthy) was a successful writer – her biography of columnist, raconteur and perpetual game show contestant in the 1950s Dorothy Kilgallen landed her on the New York Times bestseller list. Those days are long gone; a disastrous biography of cosmetics maven Estee Lauder was in the cut-out bins almost as soon as it was released. Her caustic personality hasn’t endeared her to publishers or her agent (Curtin) and nobody but nobody wants to hire her – in addition to her prickly personality her style of biographies have gone out of favor with the public while caustic tell-alls are all the rage. Her agent tells her bluntly she needs to find another way to earn a living.

This is New York City in the 1990s, one of the most expensive places in the world to live and Lee is 51 years old with no job experience other than writing. Her alcoholism has become so pronounced that when she does find a job as a copy editor, she actually brings her glass, ice and booze into the office, a big no-no. So with her rent months overdue and her beloved cat ill and needing medicine that she can’t afford and in any case she has an unpaid balance that needs to be paid before the vet will even look at the cat, she hits rock bottom.

She sells a letter from Katherine Hepburn that nets her an unexpectedly high amount of cash from a local bookseller but when she discovers a Fanny Brice letter, the bookseller who buys it (a lovely Dolly Wells) gently tells her that the contents of the letter are a little bland, so she can’t give her as much as she’d like to. Undeterred, Israel decides to rewrite the letter for which she gets a handsome fee. Now realizing that this could be a lucrative source of income for her, she begins forging letters out of whole cloth from gone but not quite forgotten stars like Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich and Dorothy Parker who Lee is particularly adept at imitating.

Lee begins to celebrate by drinking more, endearing her to the closest thing she has to a friend – gay, drug-addicted fading man about town Jack Hock (Grant) who shares a catty wit with Lee who mainly tolerates him but when she starts letting him get close, she soon realizes that there was a reason that she has isolated herself from people. Besides, the FBI has discovered her little game and soon she appears on a list of people forging memorabilia from stars and nobody will buy from her. She has to rely on Jack to sell her letters – and Jack isn’t exactly the most reliable guy on the planet.

Many critics are raving about McCarthy’s performance and with some justification. Some are even predicting an Oscar nomination for her and I’ll admit, there is also some justification for that. I’m not sure this is an Oscar-worthy performance but it’s pretty damn close. Grant is also getting some ink pushing him for a Best Supporting nomination – again, not without justification.

Some will have a tough time with this because McCarthy is almost too good at portraying Israel’s notorious misanthropic side. Near the end of the movie cracks begin to appear in her armor and even as her deeds are coming crashing down around her, one gets the sense that McCarthy might have preferred a less humble Lee at the end of the film.

But for the most part the script is funny and smartly written by Nicole Holofcener – one of my favorite writer/directors out there – and Jeff Whitty. We also get a nice epilogue which explains what happened to both Jack and Lee (both have since sadly passed away) and lets us know that Lee’s wit was just as caustic as ever even after she did her time. This is a strong indie which may have some Oscar buzz around it going into Awards season; keep an eye out for it if you are motivated by such things.

REASONS TO GO: The script is smart and funny. McCarthy does a not-quite-Oscar-worthy turn here.
REASONS TO STAY: Israel is so unlikable that it is difficult to root for her.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty fair amount of profanity (some of it sexual) as well as some brief depictions of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone was attached to the movie before she was. When Julianne Moore who was originally cast as Lee Israel backed out over creative differences, Falcone recommended his wife for the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hoax
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Long Shadow