Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400

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The Sting (1973)

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I don’t know enough about killin’ to kill him. In Depression-era Chicago following the murder of mutual friend Luther (Robert Earl Jones), smalltime grifter Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) teams up with old pro Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to take revenge on the ruthless crime boss responsible, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) from whom Johnny unwittingly steals. Hooker and Gondorff set about implementing an elaborate scheme, one that involves a lot of other con artists and so crafty that Lonnegan won’t even know he’s been swindled. As their big con unfolds, however, things don’t go according to plan, requiring some last-minute improvisation by the undaunted duo… It’s not like playing winos in the street. You can’t outrun Lonnegan. This unofficial followup to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was huge in its day, just not in my house where I smelled the phoniness as a small child and have to admit despite several efforts over the years never made it through more than the first 25 minutes of this any time it was on TV – until today! So I finally broke my duck. This is gorgeously mounted and the relationship between Newman and Redford plays as well as you’d expect, with a lovely meet-cute – Newman’s face pressed against a wall, asleep, dead drunk. They’re still outlaws, of a sort. The twist is terrific, the long con well staged with lovely silent movie-style inter-titles and the occasional trope from the era for instance a polychromatic montage done to the famous Scott Joplin ragtime adapted by Marvin Hamlisch as The Entertainer, but, but…  I cannot shake what I felt as a child despite everything I know about the movies – it’s just – fake. I cannot take it remotely seriously (I blame Redford, don’t ask me why, I don’t know) despite the performances big and small with some terrific character work by Ray Winston, Charles Durning and Eileen Brennan. And Shaw is fantastic as the nasty crim. As ever! Directed by George Roy Hill, an alumnus of Trinity College Dublin where he trained as an actor with Cyril Cusack.  He would work again with both Redford and Newman, but separately – with the former in The Great Waldo Pepper and the latter in Slap Shot, a personal favourite of this movie maniac. Written by David S. Ward who did a follow up with a different cast. Ho. Hum. Sit down and shut up, will ya? Try not to live up to all my expectations

American Animals (2018)

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You’re taught your entire life that what you do matters and that you’re special. In 2003 Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) are four friends who live an ordinary existence in Kentucky. Spencer is a budding artist and following his visit to the Special Collections room at Transylvania University in Lexington, he informs Lipka of the contents. Lipka comes up with the idea to steal the rarest and most valuable books from the school’s library:  it involves tying up the librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) and making off with the Audubon book, Birds of America, the most valuable one there. They lose their nerve at the first attempt which they prepare for by dressing up as old men. They plot a different approach for the second attempt. As one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history starts to unfold, the men question whether their attempts to inject excitement and purpose into their lives are simply misguided attempts at achieving the American dream and Spencer gave an auction house in NYC his real-life cell phone number with his dumb message on it … How can I tell you if I’m in or I’m out without telling me the first thing about what I might be in or out of.  Writer/director Bart Layton takes a true crime and spins it into something stylish but problematic, a treatise on all-American stupidity. Interviews with the real-life perpetrators, rather humbled after the fact, are interspersed with the narrative drama, which gives it a melancholy quality but the consequent issues in pacing don’t always lead to a pleasing viewing experience. It’s not set up correctly, working against any possibility of suspense. The second attempt at the heist is permitted to progress unimpeded by anything other than the protagonists’ staggering ineptitude. The outcome is inevitable and famous. The film does however blend fact and fiction and the interviews form a kind of Greek chorus, baiting us with the various points of view, Rashomon-like, and at one point even inserts Spencer into the action, albeit briefly. And it does boast Udo Kier in the cast. One day you’ll die

 

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

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What do you think you are dealing with, a total idiot here? In August 1972 in Brooklyn, NYC inexperienced criminal and Vietnam vet Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) leads a robbery on the First National Bank to finance his male lover Leon’s (Chris Sarandon) sex change.  Things quickly go wrong, and a hostage situation develops. The phone rings and it’s Police Captain Moretti (Charles Durning) informing them the place is entirely surrounded. As Sonny and his accomplice, Sal Naturile (John Cazale) try desperately to remain in control, a media circus develops and the FBI arrives led by Agent Sheldon (James Broderick) creating even more tension. Gradually, Sonny’s surprising motivations behind the robbery are revealed, his wedding photo to Leon is shown on TV and his standoff  moves toward its inevitable end as the forces of law and order consider his demands for a limo to the airport and a jet on the tarmac to take him to Algeria He wants to kill me so bad he can taste it.  Attica! Attica! Frank Pierson adapted the article The Boys in the Bank by P.F. Kluge and Thomas More and Sidney Lumet spins it into a community art installation – a ribald yet tough portrait of dysfunctional men looking for a way out. The siege is interspersed with mordantly funny phonecalls, Sonny’s parents (Dominic Chianese and Judith Malina) moaning about how his personal life has led to this, his wife Angie (Susan Peretz) calling him and telling him she can’t come over to talk because she can’t get a babysitter, the squabbles and misleading information fed him by the bank tellers and manager and Sal teed off because the newscasters are calling him a homosexual too. Penelope Allen (Sylvia) and Carol Kane (Jenny) are notable as two members of staff –  Sylvia has the opportunity to leave with a hostage but opts to stay with her girls and when Jenny’s husband calls he tells her to ask Sonny when he thinks the siege might be through. This wonderfully atmospheric outing is so well constructed and dramatised that you almost forget very little is actually happening. But when Lance Henriksen shows up you just know it’s not going to end well. The meta irony here is that Pacino wound up playing a guy who was allegedly inspired by what he had seen in The Godfather (in which of course Cazale was his brother)!  He mighta done it, his body functions mighta done it,  but he himself, he didn’t do it

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous (2005)

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I just don’t want to become FBI Barbie again. Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) is Amiable Agent according to the newspapers following her success at the Miss United States pageant but it fouls up her success in the middle of a bank heist. When her romance with a fellow agent ends she spends ten months being made over as the face of the FBI enduring book signings and teamed with bodyguard Sam Fuller (Regina King) who is far from impressed with her celebrity. The pair has to put aside their differences when one of Gracie’s former beauty queen pals, Cheryl Frasier (Heather Burns) is kidnapped with pageant MC Stan Fields (William Shatner) and the FBI is put on the case but Gracie decides this is one for her on her own.  Fuller has other ideas … The face of the FBI uses her words or her fists. Not a chair. And no snorting. Bullock returns a few weeks after becoming runner-up to Miss United States and she’s her old self, just dying to hit somebody except her fame is foiling her effectiveness on the job. Beauty queen rivalry is replaced with her violent new colleague Fuller, which sucks up the energy she used on her departed boyfriend now stationed in Miami. There are fun moments and a nice chase with a supposed Dolly Parton impersonator (with a nice cameo by you know who). Not as charming as its predecessor with more PC marks hit (gay, black, drag, kid, etc) but mildly entertaining. Bullock’s charm carries most of it and there are some good exchanges when she uses pageant clichés in highly inappropriate scenarios. King is good as the tough lady who beats up on anyone – even Regis Philbin and old people looking for Gracie’s autograph –  and it’s nice to see Treat Williams as the Vegas bureau chief and Eileen Brennan as Shatner’s mom but even in a comedy Enrique Marciano’s dimwit agent beggars belief. Great advertising for Vegas though! Written and produced by Marc Lawrence (based on characters by him, Caryn Lucas and Katie Ford) and directed by John Pasquin.  It’s been months since I had a good debriefing although I’m really more of a boxers man

 

 

Miss Congeniality (2000)

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It’s not a beauty pageant, it’s a scholarship program. When a domestic terrorist threatens to bomb the Miss United States pageant, the FBI puts Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) in charge and he rushes to find a female agent to go undercover as a contestant, replacing the disqualified Miss New Jersey. Unfortunately, Eric’s partner FBI Special Agent Gracie  Hart (Sandra Bullock) is the only woman who can look the part despite her complete lack of refinement and femininity. She prides herself in being one of the guys and is horrified at the idea of becoming a girly girl.  Going undercover is tough and she’s taken under the wing of camp Brit Victor Melling (Michael Caine) for a total makeover, while hard as nails pageant director Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen) steadily assumes the role of suspect in chief … In place of friends and relationships you have sarcasm and a gun. A light and funny take on the transformation arc with a reversal of the usual tropes, this is Bullock’s baby – she produced and shepherded the production straight into our hearts. With its fish out of order scenario intact, this proceeds to reverse expectations – becoming a beauty queen is no walk in the park, demanding starvation, exfoliation and high heels;  masquerading as a socially conscious peace-lover when you’re a gun-wielding action woman gives her more pause than she thought;  while camouflaging her true identity from alpha females who look good in swimwear troubles her as she gains new friends. As the irony ratchets up a notch with William Shatner MC’ing proceedings and the chase complements the on-stage glass harp playing and self-defence exhibition, Bullock shines in a frothy, fun star performance.  After a while you forget why you’re here! Written by regular Bullock collaborator Marc Lawrence with Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas, this is directed by Donald Petrie and marks Caine and Bergen’s reunion thirtysomething years after The MagusHaven’t you been drinking too much Coppertone?

The Heat (2013)

If you’re not in trouble you’re not doing your job.  Ambitious NYC-based FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is a methodical investigator with a long-standing reputation for excellence and arrogance. She’s better at finding drugs than sniffer dogs and is far superior to her male colleagues so they don’t like her, putting her desired promotion in jeopardy. She can’t even keep a relationship going with a cat so she borrows her neighbour’s.  In contrast, foul-mouthed, hot-tempered Boston Irish detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) goes with her gut instincts and street smarts to remove criminals from the locale, including her brother Jason (Michael Rapaport) which has alienated her family. Her own mother (Jane Curtin) gives her the finger in a drive by.  Sparks fly when these mismatched polar opposites are forced to work together to capture a drug lord, the unseen Larkin, but in the process, they become the last thing anyone expected – buddies. When they discover there’s a mole in the investigation everything is put into jeopardy … My fear is that I’m gonna put you in a bikini and you’ll still look like a fucking bank teller. Screenwriter Katie Dippold has put so many zingers into this you’ll have to watch it twice because you’re laughing so much you miss half of them. This subversion of the odd couple cop/buddy actioner is screamingly funny as it works through the genre’s tropes with zest and two fingers. Bullock’s buttoned-up uptight PC perfectionist priss Ashburn is wonderfully set off against McCarthy’s unkempt foul-mouthed vicious bully Mullins. Ashburn can’t get a date, Mullins has a mystifying physical allure. Thrown together, they are mutually united in their disgust for the albino inflicted on them from the Drug Enforcement Agency – a wonderfully offensive running joke in homage to the film with a film, Goldie Hawn’s brilliant Foul Play (a regular spin here at Mondo Towers). The anticipated painful seam of piss-taking at Boston accents is disposed of in one neat exchange over the Mullins family dinner when Ashburn tells them they’ve dropped the ‘r’ in Narc. Mullins’ realisation her brother is in a coma because of her actions leads to the only transient episode of sentiment as Ashburn’s attitude is transformed hearing the sexist comments made by their male colleagues – she turns into a gibbering expletive-laden mini-Mullins – and triggers the final act when the women’s solidarity becomes ninja-strong. God, you guys are just – what is the matter with you? You’re such… you’re just such jerks! You’re just such… shit jerk! You’re just a shit jerk dick… fucker! You’re a shit jerk dick fucker assholer. And you can all just go fuck yourselves!  With Marlon Wayans as a thick drug dealer and Demian Bechir as the boss who can’t help laughing,  this is lightning fast, hilarious, rude and brilliantly directed by Paul Feig. Truly funny. The cat got one look at your shitty life and said “no fucking thanks, man. I am outta here.”

Sicario 2: Soldado (2018)

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I could throw a stick across the river and hit fifty grieving fathers.  Following an Isis suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket FBI agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) calls on undercover operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) as Mexican drug cartels are starting to smuggle terrorists across the U.S. border. The war escalates when Matt and Alejandro kidnap a drug kingpin’s thirteen-year old daughter Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) to deliberately increase the tensions. When the young girl is seen as collateral damage, the two men will determine her fate as they question everything that they are fighting for, with Alejandro and the girl left on the wrong side of the border when the corrupt Mexican police upset the staged return of Isabel.  At the same time a teenaged Mexican in Texas Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) is recruited to move people illegally and the Government drop Alejandro in it  … Sicario was my top film of 2015 and I was pretty surprised that it would become a victim of sequelitis. This is  a far more conventional action outing but steadily winds itself around you with a vise-like grip even if it entirely lacks the deep pulsating strangeness of the original and its fabulously formal widescreen compositions by director Denis Villeneuve and DoP Roger Deakins and the amazing, visceral score of the late great Jóhann Jóhansson, to whom this is dedicated. Crucially it also lacks Emily Blunt’s character, something of a passive protagonist who also functioned as moral compass. What an unusual setup that was! It punched you in the solar plexus, kicked you in the abdomen and grabbed you by the throat. And all the time you wondered who everyone really was in that rather Homeric setup. The formerly silent and mysterious Alejandro has achieved his revenge so why does this even exist? Better ask Taylor Sheridan, who is revisiting the border territory he seems to have made his own, writing some of the best screenplays of recent years. There has been a lot of guff about the timing of this and the fact that there’s a girl ‘separated’ from her (lovely!) family here but this is a film that shows us exactly why the US or the POTUS at least wants a wall:  it’s a portrait of ruthless people trafficking poor people with the resultant evolution of drug lords, gangs and murderers. (You can leave the pity party at the door especially when you look at the murder rates in Mexico last year alone. Chaos streams from that part of the world, lest we forget. And the answer is a slew of dirty tricks and disavowed ops.)  Alejandro is almost forced to question his actions, with Isabel figuring out his relationship with her father:  he’s the attorney whose wife and kids Daddy had murdered. Moner is fantastic, a real find. She is extraordinarily self-possessed as the narco whore! administering beatings in the school yard where the principal is shit-scared of expelling her for fear of reprisals. Brolin returns to the fray dealing out fear in Somalia trying to trace the Isis loonies but back on US soil he’s dealing with the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) and his immediate superior Cynthia Foards (Catherine Keener) who wants everything off the books when two dozen Mexican cops are killed (they unleash the firepower first) and the Oval Office can no longer be officially seen to sanction any cross-border activities. The clever aspect is parallel teenage stories – the Tex-Mex boy killer and the kingpin’s girl even if they are rather replete with clichés, no matter the shock value. The conclusion has been set up to deliver another movie with del Toro – a long way from the money laundering (literally!) in Licence to Kill – still in the druggie violent territory to which he so frequently returns. Directed by Stefano Sollima. 

Going in Style (2017)

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These banks practically destroyed this country. They crushed a lot of people’s dreams, and nothing ever happened to them. We three old guys, we hit a bank. We get away with it, we retire in dignity. Worst comes to the worst, we get caught, we get a bed, three meals a day, and better health care than we got now. Lifelong friends Willie (Morgan Freeman), Joe (Michael Caine) and Albert (Alan Arkin) decide to buck retirement and step off the straight-and-narrow when their pension funds become a casualty of corporate financial misdeeds. They’re living on social security and eating dog food so what have they got to lose by taking a little action? Desperate to pay the bills and come through for their loved ones, they risk it all by knocking off the very bank that absconded with their money … The original had Art Carney, George Burns and  Lee Strasberg but in Theodore Melfi’s screenplay from the 1979 story by Edward Cannon, director Zach Braff appeals to the grey dollar audience with some of our favourite Sixties and Seventies performers with Freeman for good measure. Why wouldn’t you want to see this aged crew carry out a heist?! It’s conventionally made but has a resonance maybe moreso than the Seventies’ film did, with the banking crisis still having the ripple effect into everyone’s lives as a life’s work and savings vanish. It’s a lot of fun but says things about society and also the effect that participating in such a crime might have while quietly acknowledging that serial administrations simply permitted corporate criminals to ruin lives on an unprecedented scale and nine years later the effects are still being felt.  The guys have some good repartee and it’s pleasing to see a bunch of geezers making off with bags of swag.  Plus there’s Matt Dillon as an FBI guy and Ann-Margret for the Grumpy Old Men/Viva Las Vegas demographic.  What’s not to like?! For a comedy with a message this is a lot of fun.

I, Tonya (2017)

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There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants! In 1991, talented figure skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) becomes the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. We first see her as a three year old in 1970s Portland Oregon where her monstrous multiply-married mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) insists that she be mentored by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) at the local rink.  In 1994, her world comes crashing down when her violent ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) conspires with her moronic and delusional bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to injure Harding’s friend  and fellow Olympic hopeful and biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in a poorly conceived attack that forces the young woman to withdraw from the national championship. Harding’s life and legacy instantly become tarnished as she’s forever associated with one of the most infamous scandals in sports history…  When producer and star Robbie read Steven Rogers’s pitch black comedy she didn’t realise it was based on a true story (sort of). Her determination to bring this radical post-modern interpretation of one of the most notorious sporting crimes in the last quarter of a century to the big screen is testament to both her good taste and her chutzpah – this after all is her first starring role and she produced the film. She gives a powerhouse performance in a difficult role, delineating Harding’s evolution from white trash teen to triple axel-crushing rink monster routinely routed by snobby judges who want someone more ‘family’-friendly as their poster child and create the conditions for unconscious revenge against the powers that be. You were as graceless as a bull dyke. It was embarrassing! Janney’s performance has won all the awards (never forget she was everyone’s fave woman in the world in The West Wing) however she plays this crushing creature for a couple too many laughs.  It’s Robbie who has the tough job here – convincing us in this self-reflexive narrative that she really did deserve plaudits and not the horrifying level of domestic abuse which she came to expect after being reared by a veritable dragon in human form. Having each of the characters variously interviewed and breaking the fourth wall occasionally to ask why their contribution isn’t being featured at different points in the story reminds you that there are competing testimonies here.  The end credits, complete with real-life cringe-inducing footage of the ghastly individuals (this is really a documentary!) interspersed with Harding’s uplifting, magical performances makes you wonder how the poor girl ever survived the rank and file awfulness of her dreary Pacific north-west background. The interview with Hard Copy journalist Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) and the juxtaposition with the breaking news of OJ Simpson as the drama concludes in 1994 reinforces the underlying story of newsmaking in the 90s and how these two stories changed TV journalism forever. Brilliantly constructed and performed and well executed by Craig Gillespie. 6.0! Go Tonya!