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

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I, Tonya


Some mother and daughter relationships aren’t exactly storybook perfect.

(2017) Biographical Dramedy (Neon) Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace, Suehyla El-Attar, Jason Davis, Mea Allen, Cory Chapman, Amy Fox, Cara Mantella, Joshua Mikel, Lynne Ashe, Steve Wedan, Brandon O’Dell, Kelly O’Neal. Directed by Craig Gillespie

 

Fame is a double edged sword. It can give you the keys to the kingdom; everything in life you ever could want. It can also turn back savagely on you and make you a national laughingstock.

Those around in the mid-1990s will remember Tonya Harding (Robbie) as a gifted figure skater who had a legitimate shot at Olympic gold. The first (and to date only) woman to complete a triple axel in competition, it all came crashing down on her just prior to the 1994 Olympics in Norway.

This acid-tongued biopic shows Tonya being pushed into the rink by her overbearing mother LaVona (Janney). Single, bitter and ruthless, LaVona pushes Tonya through physical and emotional abuse, explaining it off as “she skates better angry.” A legitimate athlete, Tonya had a hard time winning judges over with her handmade costumes and her rough-around-the-edges charm.

Tonya moves from one abusive relationship to another; she meets Jeff Gillooly (Stan) at the rink. He falls head over heels for the waif who is something of a combination of Miss America and pro wrestling valet to the working class Gillooly. The two end up marrying but the relationship is tempestuous. He has a vicious temper and that temper gets physical.

She’s desperately lonely and wants to be accepted for what she is – one of the world’s best in her sport. However, her crude language and temperament get the better of her and she continues to place lower than she thinks she deserves. Then, she has that one perfect day – nailing the triple axel and winning the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, making her the odds-on favorite to medal at the Olympics. A combination of bad luck and bad decisions keep getting in her way however, and after separating, then reconciling and at last separating again with Gillooly, she switches coaches and looks to try and make a comeback. Her rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan (Carver) and a death threat that thoroughly plays with Tonya’s head and threatens to derail her chances once again leads Gillooly to conspire with his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Hauser)  to do the same to Kerrigan – except the incompetent Eckhardt decides on his own to take it a step further…

The movie is based on a series of face to face interviews with Harding and Gillooly which are often contradictory. The interviews are recreated with Robbie and Stan standing in. The actors also show the events that are being described, often stopping and turning to the camera and addressing the audience to say “I never did this,” or “She actually did this,” or make some other comment. The breaking of the fourth wall is effective and provides some of the best and most comedic moments of the film.

Several critics have groused that the film seems to be using domestic abuse (and there is a lot of it, starkly and graphically portrayed) as a punch line, but that’s quite the knee-jerk reaction in my humble opinion. Perhaps there are some folks who might find that stuff funny but there weren’t any in the screening I attended. The domestic abuse was in stark contrast to the lighter moments of sheer dumbassery displayed by Eckhardt and Gillooly, reflected by some of the more bizarre “you couldn’t make this stuff up” aspects of the actual events.

Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers make it clear their sympathies are with Harding, who was definitely dealt a difficult hand by life. She came from poverty and had to struggle for everything; to her mom’s credit (and you really can’t give her much) she found a way to outfit her with skates and skating lessons which couldn’t have been cheap. However, LaVona does some pretty awful things; she refuses to allow little Tonya a bathroom break until the poor child pees herself on the ice, which only elicits a disgusted expression from Mommy Dearest who will certainly elicit similar expressions from audience members. Class distinctions are a major theme in the film; Harding often acts like trailer trash (to use an awful expression which is to the poor the equivalent of a slur) because that’s all she knows. Still, she wills herself into success and that’s something she is almost never given credit for, mainly because she became tabloid fodder and the butt of late night comedian’s jokes.

Robbie is scary good in the movie, making Tonya hard-assed but also vulnerable. We see the pain in her face when she gives a smile for the cameras but that smile is as tight as saran wrap on her face and threatens to break at any moment. Robbie captures the attitude and vocal patterns of someone from those circumstances and makes Tonya a living, breathing person instead of a media invention.

Janney, who was so good in The West Wing returns to that kind of greatness with a much different role. There is nothing to like about LaVona and Janney gives us a character who is unapologetic and a little bit whacko. We sense that she’s been kicked in the teeth enough but there’s little context; all we see is that life has made her a ten karat bitch and someone who put Tonya on a collision course with infamy.

This is an Oscar contender on a lot of different levels and one of the best movies of the year. It’s just now hitting a limited release and should be going wide shortly. This is one you’ll want to see; even if the Tonya Harding scandal doesn’t interest you, if good filmmaking and incredible acting are more your thing, this movie covers both of those bases with room to spare.

REASONS TO GO: Robbie and Janney both give award-worthy performances. Some excellent camera work, particularly in the skating scenes. The soundtrack is near-perfect. Harding is turned from a joke into a sympathetic character.
REASONS TO STAY: The biting social commentary seems at odds with some of the humor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a scene of shocking violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Janney actually trained as a figure skater through most of her youth until an accident caused a leg injury that effectively ended her career.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Florence Foster Jenkins
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Jigsaw

American Made


Tom Cruise wonders if he can call his agent collect.

(2017) Biographical Dramedy (Universal) Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemmons, Caleb Landry Jones, Lola Kirke, Jayma Mays, Alejandro Edda, Benito Martinez, E. Roger Mitchell, Jed Rees, Fredy Yate Escobar, Mauricio Mejia, Robert Farrior, Morgan Hinkleman, Alberto Ospino, Daniel Lugo, Felipe Bernedette, Jayson Warner Smith, April Billingsley. Directed by Doug Liman

 

Some stories are too out there to be believed. Some stories are truths that are stranger than fiction. Some stories could only be made in America.

Barry Seal (Cruise) was one such story. A one-time TWA pilot bored with his commuter plane career, he smuggled Cuban cigars into the country to make a little extra cash, bringing him to the attention of the CIA. Not to prosecute him; to recruit him as it turned out. His handler, Monty Schafer (Gleeson) – not his real name as it turns out – wants him to take pictures of Leftist commando units in Central and South America from the air. Barry, ever the adrenaline junkie at heart, gets the best pictures imaginable.

He begins another smuggling sideline; this time bringing drugs into the country for guys like Manuel Noriega (Ospino) and Pablo Escobar (Mejia). Soon, Barry has more cash than he knows what to do with. His wife Lucy (Wright) – suspicious at first – turns a blind eye when she gets all the material goods that she ever dreamed of.

Stories like this rarely end well and Barry’s doesn’t either but while the ride is going on it’s entertaining. Liman seems to know how to get the best out of Cruise who still has that youthful smile but is beginning to show signs of middle age. Nonetheless Cruise again shows his star appeal by being likable while working for some pretty terrible people; well, onscreen anyway.

Liman gives us an almost Steven Soderbergh-like film; brash and full of itself. There is certainly a good deal of entertainment value here but in some ways it’s a cookie cutter movie. It doesn’t really rise above similar stories and nothing happens that the audience can’t see coming a mile away. Still in all, you won’t go wrong renting this puppy although I might think twice about buying it. It’s one of those movies that you see once, enjoy it at the time and promptly forget about it afterwards.

REASONS TO GO: There is an almost Soderbergh-like feel to the film.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit too formulaic for my own taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots and lots of profanity as well as some sexuality and a bit of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The plane that Seal used in real life was featured in the movie; tragically, it crashed on the final day of filming, causing two fatalities.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Air America
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Django