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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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

 

Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952)

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This is a story about money … remember it! Ageing heir-less millionaire Samuel Fulton (Charles Coburn) wants to leave his fortune to the unsuspecting family of his first love Millicent Blaisdell but not before testing his prospective heirs by living with them under the guise of a poor boarder under the alias John Smith.  He finds history repeating itself when he leaves them an anonymous bequest and observes Millicent’s daughter Harriet (Lynn Bari) losing the run of herself keeping up with the town’s richies and urging her own daughter Millie (Piper Laurie) to wed the son (Skip Homeier) of a wealthy family instead of Dan (Rock Hudson) who works in her dad’s (Larry Gates) pharmacy while studying at night …  Hot diggity Millie, you’re the cat’s miaow!  Set in Tarrytown, New York at the end of the Twenties, this nostalgia-fest was one of several smalltown films made by Douglas Sirk and his first in glorious Technicolor.  Not quite a musical, it takes its song and dance cues from diegetic sources so we have singalongs courtesy of the wireless and a windup travelling pianola.  This has a sharp moral lesson under the fun and it’s the kids who are smarter than the parents – little Roberta (Gigi Perreau) is the one who knows the value of friendship and paints alongside ‘John Smith’ while he starts working as a soda jerk in the store.  Twenty-one year old James Dean makes his infamous debut as the kid ordering a super-complicated malt to which Coburn makes the disarming retort, Would you like to come in Wednesday for a fitting? Handsome William Reynolds as Howard, the son who gets a gambling habit, would make another notable appearance for Sirk in All That Heaven Allows along with There’s Always Tomorrow, while Hudson and Dean would both make another film together – the legendary Giant. Hudson of course became a star under Sirk’s direction in a handful of productions for Universal. Here he’s comfortable in a funny ensemble piece.  Adapted from a story by Eleanor H. (Pollyanna) Porter by Joseph Hoffman, this is an utter delight, camouflaging its social comment with an abundance of witty lines and smart playing. What else can you expect from the nouveau riche?

Palo Alto (2013)

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Live a dangerous life. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), are California teens who like to drive around and get stoned. Shy virginal April (Emma Roberts) is at soccer practice when her friends laugh about their coach Mr. B (James Franco) having a crush on her. Mr. B asks April if she can babysit his son and he then offers her the position of striker on the school team. Fred and Teddy walk back to their car talking about what they would do if they got in a drunk driving accident. Teddy says he would drive away even if it was his crush, April. He crashes into a woman and drives off, with Fred demanding he be dropped off. When Teddy reaches home he’s arrested and winds up doing community service in a library where Fred gets him into trouble by drawing a penis on a children’s book. Fred has sex with Emily (Zoe Levin) who is infamous for giving blowjobs to boys. Mr B. confesses to April that he loves her. After a soccer game he asks her to his house but his son is at his ex-wife’s and they have sex… I wish I didn’t care about anything. But I do care. I care about everything too much.  Gia Coppola’s writing and directing debut, adapting a set of short stories by James Franco, is disturbing in terms of its content but not its presentation. It’s as though these teens’ experiences were being told through a fuzz of weed and alcohol to which they all have easy access, presumably courtesy of the extraordinarily lax parents and step-parents at arm’s length from them (Val Kilmer plays Roberts’ stepfather as a wacked out stoner. Her mother isn’t much better). When Fred’s father (Chris Messina) almost comes on to Teddy, sharing a joint with this troubled kid, we know we’re in melodramatic territory, even if it’s slowed down. That leads to Fred’s own questioning of his homosexuality when he reasons that getting a blow job from a boy isn’t any different. Roberts as the girl who is fooled by the high school sports coach is terribly good, registering every shift in her circumstance with precision. The sex scene with Franco is very sensitively shot:  this is basically a rape after all. Wolff is fine as the boy as spinning top, unsure of who he is but convinced he needs to set everything fizzing, a hormone wrapped up in dangerous levels of immaturity and sociopathy. Young Kilmer (son of Val and Joanne Whalley) is as unsure of his character as his character is of his purpose, constantly being led astray. The film has its most impressionistic performance as this boy struggles to do the right thing. His single mom just gives him love if hardly any guidance never mind issuing deterrents – this we learn is his second rap and adults are keen to keep giving him chances, just like he allows Fred to get him into jams. These kids are testing everyone’e limits with no indication of what might be permissible beyond their marijuana fume-filled homes.  It’s no surprise when the film ends on the road to nowhere:  this is not a narrative of punctuation. Peer pressure is an eternal problem, but amoral parenting sucks the big one as this amply demonstrates it in its many shades of hypocrisy, corruption and cynicism in adult behaviour. A fascinating showcase for several second- (and in the case of Coppola, third-) generation Hollywood talent in a film which literally blames the parents. I’m older and I know that there aren’t a lot of good things around, and I know that you are really good

 

Gumshoe (1971)

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Don’t be embarrassed when we’re out together – I could walk behind you.  Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney) works at a bingo hall in Liverpool, England, but dreams of becoming a stylish private investigator like those he has read about and seen in films – he’s entranced by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. After finally placing an advertisement in a local newspaper announcing his detective services, he receives a mysterious offer from a fat man who sends him a brown paper package containing a gun and he asks him to find a girl called Alison (Carolyn Seymour). His usually estranged brother William (Frank Finlay) offers him money to stop his investigation. He hangs out with his nice sister-in-law Ellen (Billie Whitelaw) but when he’s approached by the mysterious American Mrs Blankerson (Janice Rule) he’s soon in over his head. Even though Eddie is inexperienced and clueless at certain aspects of investigating he realises that he is entangled in a serious case involving drugs, murder and his own family… I sometimes hit below the belt.  Co-produced by Finney with Michael Medwin, this is an oddly charming piece of work, an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s private eye in the North of England with a man trying desperately to be Bogie in a trenchcoat but actually working in a Manchester bingo hall. The initially discomfiting narration in Eddie’s real voice is soon forgotten, aided immeasurably by a decent cast, a good level of mystery and a superbly witty score by Andrew Lloyd Webber whose flair and flourishes are laugh out loud enjoyable (he would re-use some of it for Sunset Boulevard). Finney makes a very game PI, a fish out of water in this dullsville backwater where the biggest crooks are members of his own family hoodwinking the poor putz.  Writer and actor Neville Smith adapted his own novel and it was directed by Stephen Frears, making his debut and the nicely lit location photography is by Chris Menges, sometimes shooting in a Liverpool no longer there.   Keep your guard up, don’t lead with your chin, and keep throwing out those lefts

Night of the Demon (1957)

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Aka Curse of the Demon. Where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight, this half world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?  American professor Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in London for a conference on parapsychology only to discover that the colleague he was supposed to meet, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) was killed in a freak accident the day before. It turns out that the deceased had been investigating a devil-worshipping cult lead by Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Though sceptical, Holden is suspicious of Karswell. Following a trail of mysterious manuscripts, Holden finds out that the sole link between Karswell and Harrington is a supposed murderer Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde) who is now catatonic. At Harrington’s funeral he meets the man’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) who gives him Harrington’s diary. He enters a world that makes him question his faith in science…  Adapted by producer Hal E. Chester, Charles Bennett (responsible for creating Hitchcock’s trademark tropes) and Cy Endfield, from the story Casting the Runes by the great M.R. James, this is one of the best horror films ever made. Notwithstanding the material’s power, the producer argued with director Jacques Tourneur (and Bennett) as to whether the demon should actually be shown – the producer won. Andrews (replacing Robert Taylor) is pretty good in a film that just drips with tension:  you wouldn’t want to attend a seance led by Athene Seyler in a hurry.  Locations include Brocket Hall, Herts., Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain, Bricket Wood Railway Station, Heathrow Airport, the Savoy and the British Museum Reading Room. It’s totally terrifying, incredibly atmospheric and an under-seen minor classic of the genre. I’ve heard it I’ve seen it I know it’s real

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

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You save that jiggle for your husband.  Semi-retired Michigan lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) takes the case of Army Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who murdered local innkeeper Barney Quill after his wife Laura (Lee Remick) claimed that he raped and beat her.  However a police surgeon finds no evidence of rape.  Over the course of a big trial, Biegler is the smalltown lawyer (and recently deposed District Attorney) who must parry with the new DA Lodwick (Brooks West) and out-of-town prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) to set his client free, but his case rests on the victim’s mysterious business partner Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), who’s hiding a dark secret.  Biegler has to prove Manion was suffering temporary insanity but will the jury buy it after Biegler discovers he’s a violent and jealous husband and he knows in his heart he’s got a very weak defence? … Producer/director Otto Preminger spent most of the 1950s baiting the censor with material for adults and this long engrossing account of a true crime is no different. Wendell Mayes adapted Robert Traver’s (aka John D. Voelker) novel based on his own experiences on a 1952 case in the state of Michigan.The matter of fact handling of the explicit physical details in the courtroom confirms that this is a film that has no cinematic tricks. It’s shot wide and flat in black and white with the only camouflage or disguise in the personalities presenting themselves. That applies to the legal team too:  Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) has to swear off the booze for the duration to assist Biegler;  Laura must drop the tight pedal pushers, don skirts and hide her wonderful hair;  Biegler’s bonhomie hides a finagling mind that doesn’t express great surprise at anything anyone says or conceals.   There’s a strand of humour running through both dialogue and characterisation that raises the game: the lightness of Remick as the bruised flirtatious beauty, with her wonderful companion dog Muff (Snuffy) who gets to provide his own witness statement in court, alongside Stewart’s jolly and wryly witty performance, makes this more pleasurable than the subject matter suggests. In fact the whole film avoids melodramatic excess and has a devious sinuousness that leads from Stewart. His banter with Joseph N. Welch [chief counsel for the US Army when it was being investigated for UnAmerican Activities in the McCarthy Hearings] about fishing provides a lot of enjoyment; Eve Arden as the reliable and seen-it-all secretary Maida Rutledge offers her typical scepticism in a film constructed from the cynic’s playbook. There are no histrionics or crazy closing arguments, just practice, rationale  and evidence (of witness-coaching). Now, Mr  Dancer, get off the panties – you’ve done enough damage.  Duke Ellington provides the film’s notable score and he appears uncredited as pianist Pie Eye and enjoys an exchange with Stewart. The great titles are by Saul Bass. This is elegant filmmaking, wonderfully crafted, telling a difficult story in the procedural vernacular very stylishly.  How can a jury disregard what it’s already heard?

Lean On Pete (2017)

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You don’t get attached to horses. Don’t treat them as pets.  Horses are for racing, nothing else.  Teenager Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer)and his father Ray (Travis Kimmel) wander the Pacific Northwest as Ray goes from job to job. Charley wants stability in his life and when he encounters horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) and his race horse Lean On Pete he finds a new purpose in life. But reality intervenes when his father is beaten up by his lover’s irate husband and is seriously ill in hospital. Charley secrets lives at Del’s stables but when Lean On Pete is injured and Del wants to sell him, Charley makes a decision … Andrew Haigh’s first American film is adapted from country musician and novelist Willy Vlautin’s fine book. It’s a simple story of people’s circumstances and a chance event that turns everything around – for a while. Beautifully constructed and performed, with Plummer making such a great impression in his nuanced interpretation of a boy just looking for a decent home, a good friend, a life.  You can draw your own metaphors from the issue of the ‘stable’ that offers Charley this opportunity – and the inevitable sorrow that follows.  The desert scenes are all big sky and lonesomeness. His behaviour as he confronts his homelessness on city streets is a byword for silent communication:  how he carries himself tells us so much. There is a marvellous soundtrack, with one song by Richmond Fontaine, Vlautin’s band,  and there are good supporting roles for Chloe Sevigny and Steve Zahn. A very rewarding and affecting watch.

The Man Who Never Was (1956)

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If we can get Gerry to move one weapon – a battery or even a gun – it’s going to save a lot of lives.  In 1943 the Allies are preparing to invade Sicily during World War II and British naval intelligence agent Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) hatches a cunning plan to fool Germany into believing the Allies’ true target is Greece. Concocting a fictitious British officer ‘Major William Martin’, with an unwitting patriot put on ice in a London mortuary, Montagu gathers false top-secret documents and personal letters to plant upon a corpse that will wash ashore in Spain at Huelva where the local German spy will presumably investigate his authenticity and the neutral Spanish Government share the documents with the Abwehr. But the investigations of a German undercover agent Irishman Patrick O’Reilly (Stephen Boyd) in London could potentially expose the fraud and scupper the landing in Sicily … Sensitive to a fault, this depiction of the true-life British WW2 scam known as Operation Mincemeat is wonderfully written by Nigel Balchin (adapted from Montagu’s book), persuasively performed by a terrific cast and crisply directed by Ronald Neame. This particular plan was to prove a turning point in the war and it was (Ripley’s here) based on the Trout memo of 1939 written by Rear Admiral John Godfrey and his right-hand man a certain Lt. Commander Ian Fleming.  The scenes with the father of the unknowing volunteer and the disposal of his body in the Mediterannean are treated with dignity.  Gloria Grahame’s performance as the lovelorn flatmate of secretary Pam (Josephine Griffin) is striking and the scene when O’Reilly calls on the women to verify the minutiae of the non-existent Martin’s life is unbelievably tense. It didn’t quite happen that way because the British had controlled the German spy network through the Double-Cross System, a fact that was not made public at the time this was made. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant story efficiently told,  also documented in columnist Ben MacIntyre’s book Operation Mincemeat which I heartily recommend. Watch for Joan Hickson (TV’s Miss Marple) as O’Reilly’s landlady and Cyril Cusack as the taxi driver/spy. Montagu himself appears uncredited as an Air Vice Marshal and a certain Winston Churchill appears in voice only!

 

The Reader (2008)

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Go to your literature, go to the theatre if you want catharsis. Don’t go to the camps. Germany, 1958.  Fifteen-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets thirtysomething tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) when he falls ill with scarlet fever and she comes to his aid. Months later he visits her to thank her and she seduces him. They meet regularly and their relationship is passionate. She insists that he read books to her during their meetings. Reading first. Sex afterwards.  When Hanna abruptly moves away without informing him, Michael is heartbroken. Years later, while studying law at Heidelberg University, he is shocked to discover that Hanna is on trial for a brutal Nazi war crime when he is sent to observe a case at court. She admits to something that will incriminate her and ensure life imprisonment rather than say she is actually illiterate. She became a prison guard to hide her problem. What would you have done? Michael withholds the crucial information that could minimise her sentence. Ten years later he (Ralph Fiennes) is divorced and unhappy. His daughter lives with his ex and he has nothing much to do with his family.  He records cassettes of himself reading books and sends them to Hanna in prison.  She teaches herself to read using his recordings alongside books from the prison library. Then Michael is phoned by the prison as he is Hanna’s only contact to be told she is due to be released and needs to re-enter society … Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical novel Der Vorleser was watercooler stuff, the book you had to read a decade and a half ago. In an era suffused with simplistic youth-oriented dystopic nonsense and wizardry it was water in the desert, a book that had historic relevance and contemporary resonance in a society still gripped by the Nazis who were and are still living, still unrepentant. When Michael asks Hanna what she learned in her prison term she states bluntly, I learned to read. Winslet may have received the acting honours but the role is narrow, her character’s intelligence limited, her grasp of anything finite beyond a certain native shrewdness. Everything is transactional, even degeneracy. It is Fiennes who has to retain and expose the devastating effect their relationship has had on his life, as a son, a husband and father. He is also the adult lawyer living with the knowledge that his generation has been mainly unmarked by the failure of the German state.  Yet somehow his sexual adventure has created an incriminating situation for him akin to guilt.  Kross is equally good as the boy initiated into the wonders of sex with a woman who gets him to repeat the reading ritual that Jews were forced to perform for her at Auschwitz. The irony that they have both introduced each other to vastly differing worlds ricochets through his adult life. Her shame concerns illiteracy, not complicity in murder:  this is the crux of the narrative. She will not dwell in the past. It is a metaphor too far for some perhaps but it makes sense when you consider the ease with which Germany rebuilt itself with former Nazis running everything, an arrangement blessed by the former Allies, a fact erased from most people’s consciousness. That is why I believe so many critics hated this film:  we are all complicit in Germany’s overwhelming role in Europe today,  in permitting the Nazis to continue in another guise:  we are therefore no better than the Germans ourselves.  Linking this concept to an erotic coming of age story is daring and reminiscent of The Night Porter, another divisive work.  Michael did not go to his father’s funeral, his mother says.  We infer that his father’s role in World War Two was beyond the pale, at least for him. Things remain unspoken. This is a complex, emotionally powerful film with a problematic resolution that seeks to assuage several varieties of guilt without actually excusing anyone, understanding the accommodations necessitated by the quotidian. Adapted with acuity by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry and produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died during production. There’s an interesting score by Nico Muhly and Bruno Ganz’s performance as the law professor with Lena Olin as a Jewish camp survivor (and her mother) rounding out the impressive cast in a troubling and carefully constructed moral tale.