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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Patrick (2018)

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He grunts and snores but I’m kind of getting used to it. Sarah (Beattie Edmondson) is the underachieving secondary school English teacher whose boyfriend has just dumped her and she inherits her grandmother’s pugnacious pug Patrick despite despising dogs. While learning to live with him, she dates the socially awkward local vet (Ed Skrein), her BFF Becky (Emily Atack) persuades her to run a 5K even though she is totally unable to compete, she bitches about her superior older barrister sister and falls for Ben (Tom Bennett) who turns out to be the father of one of her students – whose parents’ divorce is sending her off the rails to the extreme point of not showing up for her GCSE English exam … Nobody covers themselves with glory in what is essentially a valentine to the loveliness of Richmond Upon Thames with its herds of deer and upwardly posh population. There is a laughable nod to social realism by having Sarah stumble upon her male students ripping the wheels off a car. This is so carelessly ‘written’ by Vanessa Davis that Skrein does not have a name:  in the cast list he’s ‘Vet’. Edmondson’s real-life mother Jennifer Saunders turns up just in time to see her cross the finish line where Patrick has finally escaped a predatory cat. As bloody if. Patrick of course is not the point. Miaow! There’s a soundtrack of Amy Macdonald songs, which might please some people. Mildly directed by Mandie Fletcher, who directed Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.

Doctor Dolittle (1967)

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There’s no doubt about it – animals are far more interesting than people.  In early Victorian England, Dr. John Dolittle (Rex Harrison) lives in a small village where he much prefers the company of animals to humans.  He trains as a veterinarian and specialises in caring for and verbally communicating with animals. When Dr. Dolittle is unjustly sent to an insane asylum for freeing lovesick circus seal Sophie from captivity so she can return to her husband at the North Pole, his animals and two closest human friends, Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley) and Tommy Stubbins (William Dix), liberate him. Afterwards they join Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar) and set out by boat to find a famed and elusive creature: the Great Pink Sea Snail, fetching up on an island where the natives prove a challenge…  How do you make money with a Pushmi-Pullyu? Songwriter Leslie Bricusse adapted Hugh Lofting’s classic children’s books and Harrison and Newley take their theatrical shtick to the screen with zest. A witty, whimsical delight, this was a controversial flop following some disastrous choices of location shooting led to huge production overruns and Harrison’s loathsome behaviour made filming a chore for the human cast.  The songs are fun, the action marvellous (Harrison’s love scene with Sophie the Seal has to be seen to be appreciated) and it’s a wonderfully colourful musical directed with some flair by Richard Fleischer.  I have nothing in common with the human race

Father Figures (2017)

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I can feel your brother inside you. Oddball twin brothers, uptight proctologist Peter (Ed Helms) and laidback face of BBQ sauce Kyle (Owen Wilson) attend their mother Helen’s (Glen Close) wedding. While watching his go-to TV Law and Order SVU, Peter becomes obsessed with the idea that his biological father whose photo he’s kept resembles an actor on the show. Helen admits the photo’s a fake and she slept around ‘cos it was the 70s and says their father didn’t die after all – he was footballer Terry Bradshaw, now resident in Florida with a car dealership. The men take off on a road trip that sees them travelling the East Coast for answers … I stare at assholes all day long because of a fictional man’s colon cancer. Best thought of (if at all) as a kind of lewd fairytale (every father figure gives an inadvertent helping hand to the brothers resolving their fractious relationship, the fairy godfather is a lisping African-American hitchhiker); or a male Mamma Mia! in reverse with a kind of Wizard of Oz ending. I’m not sure that that much construction went into this but there are some funny moments (including a very lateral idea about Irish Twins…) despite – and this is a grievous insult – putting the marvellous Harry Shearer into the thankless role of Close’s new husband and a pissing competition with a kid. I mean, come on. Directed by cinematographer Lawrence Sher, making his debut with a screenplay by Justin Malen. I understand how Luke Skywalker felt now.

Another Man’s Poison (1951)

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I want him. I wanted him from the first moment I ever saw him. Mystery writer Janet Frobisher (Bette Davis) lives in Yorkshire and has been separated for years from her husband, a man with a criminal past. Her nearest neighbour is nosy veterinarian Dr. Henderson (Emlyn Williams). Janet has been having having an affair with Larry (Anthony Steel) who is years younger than her and he just happens to be engaged to marry her secretary Chris (Barbara Murray). When her estranged husband unexpectedly appears, Janet poisons him by administering medication given to her by Dr. Henderson for her horse. One of the deceased man’s criminal cohorts George (Gary Merrill) arrives as she’s preparing to dispose of the body in the local lake. When Chris and Larry arrive at the secluded house, the mysterious man, who has assisted her with her scheme, impersonates George, the long-absent spouse of Janet and Chris learns of the affair between Janet and Larry. When George kills her beloved horse Fury she sends him after Chris in an unsafe vehicle left at her front door by Henderson. He crashes, but survives and she determines on revenge … The night air teems with unexpected guests. Sounds like Shakespeare but isn’t. With additions to Val Guest’s screenplay by actor/playwright Williams (whose credits include The Corn is Green), this is a stage adaptation from Leslie Sands’ play Deadlock whose origins remain somewhat despite efforts to open it out and it lacks the visual panache in interiors that Hitchcock would manage to demonstrate with his take on Dial M for Murder. For all that, Davis bristles as a barnstorming man magnet, delighting in the viciousness of her mystery writer role and the woman’s insatiable desire for sex with her secretary’s fiancé. The barbs fly. Of course the second pairing of Davis and (now husband) Merrill is worth watching a year after they met and seemingly enacted the main couple’s relationship on All About Eve:  here there is real hatred between the two. She relishes the chance to play nasty and her manic laugh at the highly ironic conclusion is filled with gleeful appreciation, a creator of mystery entrapped by the machinations of her own deadly plot. We see some of the ingredients for Baby Jane right here. This is a narrative of barely suppressed, sometimes shockingly overt, violence and it’s unique in the canon of her work for that reason. This interesting instance of British film noir was produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who spent a number of years in the UK making independent movies and it was directed by Irving Rapper who had made the classic Now, Voyager with Davis a decade earlier. Shot on location in Yorkshire’s West Riding and at Nettlefold Studios by Robert Krasker, best known for his work on The Third Man. There’s an extremely witty use of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust on the soundtrack.  Out of evil cometh good. That is, occasionally

Woman on the Run (1950)

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It’s no use honey once they’re gone, they’re gone.  When he witnesses a gangland murder whilst out walking his dog at night in San Francisco, artist Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) goes on the run to avoid being killed himself. His wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan) seems almost apathetic about finding him when questioned by police detective Harris (Robert Keith), due to their marital problems. However, after learning from his doctor that Frank has a grave heart condition, Eleanor teams up with persistent reporter Dan Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe) to help track down her husband with only a cryptic letter to go on. She tries to evade the police’s surveillance team and in the course of her search she finds she has new love for Frank but is unaware that the killer may be closer than she knows… Fantastically nifty and smart post-war noir, with wonderful location shooting (Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, the Art Gallery, Telegraph Hill) and a gripping performance by the leading lady who delivers great barbs and has a grabby sidekick in the scene-stealing Rembrandt the dog.  Sylvia Tate’s short story was adapted by Alan Campbell and director Norman Foster (an associate of Orson Welles), with a dialogue assist by Ross Hunter and its sharpness immeasurably assists a pacy genre entry. The impressive roller coaster finale was shot at Santa Monica Pier. Underrated

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

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You can never tell who your enemies are, or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I love animals so much. You look in their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts. They’re not like people. The time is 1939 and the place is Poland, homeland of veterinarian Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh). The Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). The Zabinskis covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save the lives of hundreds from what has become the Warsaw Ghetto… Zoos and Jews. That’s what this should have been called. And unless you’re either sadistic or masochistic or a Nazi you won’t enjoy the spectacle of mass murder perpetrated on either party in the Warsaw Ghetto or at the Zoo. As usual Niki Caro’s film is a game of two halves with an ugly child. It’s hard to empathise because Chastain – not an actress who really cares if we like her – is the main protagonist and she has a squeaky high-pitched accent so ludicrous you laugh and it’s only in the second half that the action, narrative and emotions clarify and coalesce. You can probably guess the ending (the Nazis lost, the zoo survived, the Jews and animals, not so much.) Adapted by Angela Workman from Diane Ackerman’s book, based on a true story. Goy veh!

A Street Cat Named Bob (2016)

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A homeless man getting himself off drugs is befriended by a ginger cat. Great premise for a movie?! But it’s all true, as we know from newspaper stories a few years back, and the eponymous memoir by James Bowen (and his charming friend Bob) in this London-set tale starring Luke Treadaway as the street busker and Bob … as himself! Believe it or not, the cat is just amazing. And I say that as one who spends her life herding them, pointlessly. Mine refuse to wear Christmas scarves or leads and they certainly don’t earn me any money or agree to travel. Treadaway keeps his hair nice and stringy to remind us of his backstory as an emotionally fragile young man (how old is LT?!) whose family breakup when he was 11 has caused his current situation. Bob literally saves his life. There’s a nice romance with kooky Ruta Gedmintas, Anthony Head finally resurfaces from Buffy as his errant and remarried dad and Joanne Froggatt is wearing contemporary clothes as a drugs therapist which takes a bit of getting used to. Treadaway convinces as a musician on a methadone programme but then we know from Brothers of the Head (with his twin Harry) that it’s in his manor. Given the subject matter, and the real-life turnaround by Bowen – his story was turned into a ghostwritten book, this engaging comedy drama thankfully has a happy ending, all dramatised here. (Bowen makes a cameo appearance at the bookstore signing.) Whew. But what about Bob?!!!!! An award-winning feline performance! Between this and Nine Lives I cannot recall a better cinematic year for cats. Adapted by Tim John and Maria Nation (watch out for her name on a building….) and directed by Roger Spottiswoode.