Posts tagged ‘film’

February 16, 2019

#149) Movie review: “Can You Ever Forgive Me”

Three months ago, if someone had asked me about Lee Israel, I would have said, “Who’s he?” When I saw the preview for “Can You Ever Forgive Me”, a biopic of literary forger Lenore Carol “Lee” Israel starring Melissa McCarthy, I thought, “Maybe if I’m stuck on a JetBlue flight from Boston to L.A. that’s running late and they’re showing this movie, I’ll watch it.” Recently, I found myself on a JetBlue flight from Boston to L.A. that was running late and they were showing this movie.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me” is a film that should not work. It is about an obscure person, it’s slowly paced, lacks a marquis cast and has no main characters under the age of 40. I can’t imagine why anyone thought America would be interested in Lee Israel (and judging by the fact that as of this writing, the film is yet to make up its $10 million price tag at the box office, America isn’t.) Yet despite all of its apparent liablities, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” delivers – a success as unlikely as the idea of a dowdy Jewish alcoholic lesbian has-been writer becoming a con artist.

In 1991, Lee Israel is a struggling Manhattan biographer. While she had some success in the past, she seen as unfashionable, outdated and unwilling to play the game, in particular by her agent (Jane Curtin). She is reduced to selling used books to pay for her cat’s medications; at the store, insult is added to injury when she sees that her biography of Estee Lauder is being sold in the clearance section.

A chance discovery of a long-lost Fanny Brice letter at a research library becomes a lightbulb moment for Israel. Stealing the letter, she takes it home, rolls it into her typewriter, adds her own post script and sells the new version to a collector. Before long, Israel is forging and selling letters allegedly written by the likes of Brice, Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, who was known to sarcastically ask, “Can you ever forgive me?” following her alcohol-fueled outbursts.

McCarthy’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Lee Israel is a big reason why “Can You Ever Forgive Me” works. It’s been said that American actors are afraid of playing unlikeable characters. Not McCarthy: Lee Israel is not only unlikeable; she’s also boring. Unlike Frank Abagnale, Leo DiCaprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can”, Israel is not charming, elegant or witty. The key is that McCarthy, director Marielle Heller and writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty aren’t trying to get us to like Lee Israel. The script gives Lee multiple chances to take the high road and she never does. What the movie accomplishes is making her real: someone whose grudges, moods and lack of social graces, however unappealing, are still relatable. Haven’t we all, at one point, resented the successes of others who might not be as skilled but know how to ingratiate themselves to the right people at the right time?

For all McCarthy brings to it, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” is not a one-woman show. Opposite her is Richard E. Grant, whose performance as Jack Hock earned him a best supporting actor nod. The decision to make Hock a roguish Brit (his real life counterpart was American) might feel gimmicky, but Grant gives the character depth. Below his gaudy exterior is a quick and sharp wit; below that is resignation. Perhaps Grant’s Hock grew up having to repress his homosexuality before enjoying liberation in the post Stonewall Riots era as a young man, only to then have to live under the threat of AIDS, which takes the lives of many of his friends. His bond with Israel stems not just from loneliness but a shared sense of loss of fleeting success and happiness.

The other main female character, shy bookstore owner and autograph buyer Anna (Dolly Wells) is a fictitious creation, but still a key part of the story: through her we see Lee’s struggle to let herself let others in. At first, Wells seems to play Anna as a typical wallflower, but the performance is more nuanced. Anna doesn’t want to hide behind her books; like Lee, she yearns to connect with others but doesn’t know how. Whereas Lee is embittered by having lost recognition and respect for what she feels are no good reasons, Anna has always lived in the shadows and can barely get herself to ask for acknowledgement.

The loneliness of Lee, Jack and Anna is compounded by another character in the movie: New York City. The New York of this film is not the den of iniquity of “Taxi Driver” and “Midnight Cowboy” but rather a perpetually gray, snowy place that ignores its citizens who toil and sacrifice to make ends meet. Lee and Jack’s corner bar of choice is a respite from the cold but not particularly inviting in any other way. The warmth of Lee’s agent’s brownstone is superficial, bought by her pandering to popular tastes and telling people what they want to hear.

The film does have a few minor shortcomings. Does a film that largely avoids cliches really need a cat to show us that Lee lacks meaningful human relationships? Also, some of the plot seems convenient: after the FBI sends out alerts about Lee, wouldn’t her buyers be suspicious when the quirky Englishman suddenly shows up wanting to sell the same type of memorabilia? Perhaps they don’t want to believe the worst about Lee; perhaps 1991 was a more innocent time; whatever the reason, they seem only mildly concerned about what would probably be a giant red flag today.

These points aside, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” exceeded my expectations by more than any movie I’ve seen in a while. No, it’s not for all tastes, but for those who might be a little tired of origin stories, remakes and sequels, it hits the spot. Lee Israel might not have been a noble protagonist, but I wouldn’t have minded sitting next to her on a JetBlue flight that’s running late.

 

 

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July 3, 2016

#115) Remembering Cimino

No animals were harmed during the writing of this blog post.

Late 1970s. A movement that recently dominated has shown signs of fading from public favor. In these uncertain times, a young rising star becomes the darling of the industry. Seen as infallible, he is given unlimited power to create the masterpiece that will bring glory, fame and influence to all involved.

Result: disaster.

No, we’re not talking about Howard Scott Warshaw and the “E.T.” video game, but a man whose life had some interesting parallels to that of the Atari software engineer. Oscar-winning film director Michael Cimino has become the latest unfortunate addition to the Class of 2016 at age 77.

You don’t have to have seen “The Sicilian” or “Year of the Dragon”(I haven’t) to find the life of Cimino intriguing; indeed it’s at least as compelling a movie subject as, oh, I don’t know, say the Johnson County War. There are one-hit wonders (If they can make a movie about Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, why not one about Cimino?) There are those who are remembered only for one unfortunate moment, such as Miss Teen South Carolina and that guy who didn’t catch the ground ball Mookie Wilson hit. It’s unusual, however, for a person to be associated equally with a brilliant achievement and a dumpster fire. Yet Cimino’s story also has familiar elements of hubris and the American tendency to build something up, start resenting its power and then tear it down (not unlike the Son of Beast roller coaster.)

After his first film, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974), starring and produced by Clint Eastwood, Cimino swung for the fences with a $15 million Vietnam War epic. His studio, EMI, was wary. Just a few years removed from “The Godfather”, director-oriented movies were starting to seem like financial risks. A cerebral thriller called “Sorcerer” from director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) was badly beaten at the box office by another movie released the same weekend: “Star Wars.” How would audiences respond to a film with a “gruesome storyline and a barely known director?”

“The Deer Hunter” brought in $49 million at the box office and won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. New Hollywood was still alive. Now signed with United Artists, Cimino was given full creative control over his next project, a film with an estimated $7.5 million price tag. The director and his crew headed up to the Montana wilderness in the spring of 1979 to start filming with the goal of finishing in time for the year’s Oscar season.

By the time “Heaven’s Gate” was released in November of 1980, its budged had exploded to $44 million and it had already been the subject of many tabloid stories. The film–cut from its original five hours to three and a half–was pulled after only one week of release. A two and a half hour re-release in 1981 also tanked. When the dust settled, “Heaven’s Gate” had made $1.5 million and was blamed for the demise of United Artists Studios. With Francis Coppola’s “One From The Heart” ($26 million budget, $636,000 box office), “Heaven’s Gate” also effectively ended the era of director-oriented pictures. Cimino directed four more films but his career never lived up to its promise.

Yet the years have been kind to “Heaven’s Gate.” Re-releases of the film have met with acclaim; while its flaws are not overlooked its virtues are also given light. Perhaps Cimino’s ultimate vindication came from general understanding that the post-New Hollywood way hasn’t resulted in better films. As Coppola said in 2000, “Directors don’t have much power anymore, the executives make unheard of amounts of money, and budgets are more out of control than they ever were. And there hasn’t been a classic in ten years.” In the 2004 documentary “Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate” former UA exec Steven Bach states, “The business of Hollywood has overwhelmed everything else, and it’s hard to see how the movies are better off for it.”

Now that Cimino has joined “Heaven’s Gate” cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (1930-2016), how will he be remembered?  This article from the Guardian might provide a clue: “…[Y]ou don’t always have to think of the terms ‘catastrophe’ and ‘classic’ as incompatible. Just this once, you’re permitted both.”

 

October 29, 2013

#61) Book review: “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” by Peter Biskind

Like many of the films of the “New Hollywood” which it describes, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is something of a flawed masterpiece.  Biskind tells a compelling story–the rise and fall of the director as film star–taking us behind the scenes of classic films such as  “Chinatown”, “Taxi Driver”, “Apocalypse Now” and more, while delving into the lives of Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and other significant figures of the era.  However, just as New Hollywood did itself in with excess, so too the narrative of Biskind’s book could have used some trimming.

At its core, this is a rags to riches to rags story.  The directors at its center started from financially and socially humble beginnings.  They made the move to Hollywood.  They had a run of successful movies.  Success went to their heads.  By the ’80s, they were at best shadows of their former glory, at worst, irrelevant–or dead (though some in Hollywood might consider irrelevance a fate worse than death).

“Easy Riders” isn’t just about individuals however, it’s about an institution.  It’s about the disconnect between the American “zeitgeist” of the Vietnam era and the safe, forgettable films that the “Old Hollywood” was cranking out.  It’s about the influence of foreign directors–auteurs such as Fellini, Kurosawa and Godard–on American tastes in film and on American film makers.  It’s about a mindset of film making that might ultimately not have worked but still produced some great movies.

Biskind focuses on several central figures but describes many more; as if he’s aware of this, he adds a “cast of characters” index to remind us exactly who’s who.  He takes us into the unstable, lonely childhood of Francis Ford Coppola, who moves to L.A. only to find it not to his liking, settling instead in San Francisco and begrudgingly agreeing to direct a film based on Mario Puzo’s novel “The Godfather.”  He allows us to vicariously travel the journey of William Friedkin, who leaves an unhappy Chicago childhood behind when he wins the Oscar for “The French Connection” and gives legitimacy to the horror film with “The Exorcist.”  He follows awkward Steven Spielberg from Cincinnati to New Jersey to Phoenix and ultimately Hollywood, where he almost buries his career before it begins by running late and over budget on film that no one takes seriously: “Jaws.”  Lesser known figures in the book include Bob Evans, an executive who was said to have taken so many women to bed that he needed his housekeeper to help him keep track and acerbic film critic Pauline Kael who described a comedy as having laughs that were “sparser than an eighty-year old woman’s pubic hair.”

Though he hints from the outset that these directors’ early successes will be paid for later on, Biskind doesn’t seem to take any pleasure in chronicling their downfalls.  In fact, more often than not he sees it as a case of the punishment not fitting the crime.  While he acknowledges that ultimately the New Hollywood didn’t work and that problems from within were as much to blame as those from without, he clearly doesn’t like the producer-oriented system that took its place.  He speculates that even if the directors of the New Hollywood had behaved more responsibly, the movement wouldn’t have survived the blockbuster mentality of the 1980s.

Unlike the directors, actors, writers and executives of New Hollywood, Biskind doesn’t let his ego get in his way, but his writing still has shortcomings that prevent “Easy Riders” from being a truly great book.  Many of the minor characters in the book become forgettable; in detailing their bad behavior, Biskind doesn’t make them memorable and their names are hard to keep straight (expect to have to refer to the “cast of characters” index regularly).  While some of the characters are sympathetic despite their faults and others are truly scum, the majority of them are just forgettable.  Biskind devotes as many (if not more) pages to anonymous executive Frank Yablans than to Michael Cimino, who let the success from “The Deer Hunter” go to his head with “Heaven’s Gate”, the film that is blamed more than any other for bringing down New Hollywood.

The result is a book that, though it could have been more, will still definitely appeal to fans of the New Hollywood and its movies. While  he could have done it better, Biskind still tells a memorable story.  In the minds of many–not just the directors who survived it–the film industry has not changed for the better since New Hollywood.  Perhaps the ultimate point of “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is that after all of the fights, drugs, break-ups and deaths, many great movies have survived.