Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant

Director: Marielle Heller

Writers: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty


It’s no easy feat to make a film about ageing, loneliness and self-loathing as funny and enjoyable as this but damned if Marielle Heller didn’t pull it off. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a film that’s never short on laughs, especially in the hilariously bitter ways that Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) treats the world around her. It’s only when the film hits you with a moment of such tragic melancholy that you remember it’s not actually a comedy. Most of the time in films loneliness is the image of a sole figure in an open, empty space gazing into the distance while some gloomy music plays. The image of loneliness presented here is altogether more despondent; it’s like a parasite that’s latched onto you and burrowed itself so deeply that you’ve convinced yourself it’s an actual part of your physical body. It’s a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy whereby a miserably lonely figure such as this film’s depiction of Israel won’t make any meaningful effort to change their lives because they’ve convinced themselves that the loneliness is simply who they are. That the film is able to make that dejected feeling felt as viscerally as it is while still scoring laughs and leaving you feeling like you’ve just watched a feel-good movie is a testament to how superbly it balances itself on that delicately fine line between comedy and drama.

Based on the real Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? recounts her short-lived career as a literary forger. Once a bestselling author of biographies of such cultural icons as Tallulah Bankhead and Estée Lauder, we first meet Lee in 1991 when she hasn’t had a successful book in years. She has taken a proofreading job for which she is vastly overqualified (to the point that she can (and often will) do it drunk) just to pay the bills and has had to resort to impersonating Nora Ephron on the phone just so that her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) will take her calls. Her latest project about vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice is failing to gain any traction with the publishers she used to work with and it is all too apparent that whatever pull her name had back in her more prolific days has long since dissipated. Her bitter and belligerent conduct has resulted in the burning of whatever bridges she once had to the publishing world and the hapless author has only grown more resentful over time. The depths to which Lee has fallen is made readily apparent when she is compelled to infiltrate the kind of fancy party she has always hated with the kinds of literary bigwigs she has always despised (including Tom Clancy) just to get a straight answer from someone. Thus, as likeable a protagonist as she is, it’s no great surprise to see that Lee lives in a run-down apartment alone with her cat.

While carrying out research for the book that nobody wants, Lee happens upon a small bunch of letters written by Brice. She swipes one of the notes to have it valued at her local bookshop and learns that the writings could earn her some pocket money but not much more. That is until she adds a saucy P.S. to one of the notes with her typewriter and finds that collectors are willing to pay far more for its witty, scandalous content. Realising that she may have tapped into something potentially huge, Lee proceeds to compose forgeries in the likeness of such icons as Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker. Her new venture becomes so lucrative and successful that she enlists the drunken, out-of-work actor Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to peddle the texts to several different bookshops and collectors in order to avoid rousing any suspicion. What ends up surprising Lee the most about this whole scam, more than its profitability, is how good she is at capturing the voices of some of the greatest wits and minds of the 20th century and how ravenously hungry people are for something that she herself has written after so many years of obscurity and irrelevancy. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she announces with pride.

This film finally gives McCarthy a chance to flex her dramatic acting muscles and the result is the performance of her career thus far. Her comedy instincts might have tempted her to overplay the character by exaggerating her aggressiveness or hamming up the drunkenness, but that would have been a mistake. Instead her focus is on the human being behind the cursing and booze, one who feels inconsolably estranged and abandoned by the world. She has alienated all those who once loved and respected her and has been left behind by her community and peers due to this fundamental inability to connect with others and adapt to change. One of the more poignant moments in the film is when the romantic bond Lee as formed with local bookshop owner Anna (Dolly Wells) comes to a head as the self-destructive author, convinced of her worthlessness, is ultimately unable to accept the affection that she so desperately craves. This is the kind of role that could easily have been a typical loser-turned-criminal but the depth McCarthy brings instead allows the audience to appreciate Lee as a profoundly broken human being, one consumed and trapped by the loneliness that drives her to act out in such harmful ways. That we empathise with this antagonistic fraudster and find her as funny and sympathetic as we do is as much due to McCarthy’s talents as it is Holofcener and Whitty’s writing.

One of the great pleasures of the film is watching Lee interact with Jack, the only person she knows more wretched than herself and thus the only one willing to put up with her. The casting of Grant invites us to view the character as an older Withnail, still addicted to booze and cigarettes and still putting on an elaborate performance as the character of himself, but there’s a little more going on here. He is homeless and HIV positive and, like Lee, he has been similarly exiled by the New York literary scene. In addition to this Jack is a gay man who, like many other gay men in 1991, feels like has had been abandoned by the world at large and left behind to die. It is a begrudging friendship that they form and seldom do they have anything nice to say about one another but over time it becomes clear to them both that the reason they keep meeting in the same bar at the same time is because neither has anywhere else to go or anybody else who will drink with them. That Jack is so full of glee and bravado (a mask for his anxieties of course) while Lee is grumpy and vicious allows for same great contrast between the two which make their back-and-forths amongst the most delightfully funny moments. Like many things in this film it is both sweet and sad to watch these two nasty characters realise, even after all the insults they trade, all the harms they inflict and all the trouble the con gets them into, not only how much they actually like each other but also how desperately they need each other.

What impresses the most about Can You Ever Forgive Me? is how seamlessly it captures its comically dramatic (or dramatically comical) tone. This is a film that could have easily been either too miserable to be enjoyable or too humorous to be taken seriously. Instead Heller manages to make it land in that perfect middle ground where The Apartment, Harold and Maude and Withnail & I live, all of them films that will make you laugh until you realise how tragic the characters are but then still somehow keep you laughing anyway. The premise about how Lee fools the world with her fabricated letters might lead you to believe that her story will work out something like The Producers, but this film is not a comedy (or at least it’s not that kind of comedy). Some of the circumstances are amusing and Lee is herself a funny character, but when the whole plot inevitably unravels and the truth comes out, it’s not a pay off, it’s a disaster. At the same time, however, it comes with a silver lining, a small but meaningful victory for Lee that nobody can take away. The film ends on a humble but touching note while still maintaining its sense of humour and every second that came before was a pleasure to watch.

★★★★★

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The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Eugenio Derbez, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman

Directors: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston

Writer: Ashleigh Powell


The tale that we know as The Nutcracker originally comes from an 1816 short story written by E.T.A. Hoffmann about a young girl called Marie who helps the Nutcracker defeat the evil Mouse King and follows him to a magical kingdom populated by dolls where she sees many wondrous things. This story formed the basis for the libretto to the Tchaikovsky ballet where they enormously simplified what was already a pretty uncomplicated story in order to fit a two-act structure that could accommodate several extended dance sequences with the minimal (if any) use of plot. In the century since its composition The Nutcracker has grown into a phenomenon that continues to be performed all over the world with music that ranks among the most beloved and familiar in the entire classical canon. It has also become one of the many public domain properties that Hollywood likes to readapt and reinvent every so often. Since it’s been a little over eight years since The Nutcracker last received the cinematic treatment (which is about four decades in Hollywood years), Disney has thus revived the story once again, this time with not one, not two, not even three, but four realms.

I would have thought that if anything could serve as an example to cinema of how to create a visual spectacle and convey a story through actions, expressions and gestures rather than dialogue, it would be a ballet. Such inspiration would be invaluable to a fairy tale such as this where the audience’s investment depends on their being bewitched by a spell of cinematic majesty and whimsical feeling. Nothing kills this spell faster or more assuredly than the logic and banality that comes with conventional narrative and explanatory dialogue. Think of the silent charm of My Neighbour Totoro or the dream-like wonder of The Wizard of Oz. How much more trite and tiresome would these movies be if they relentlessly apologised for being fairy tales by explaining what everything is and how they work and adding conflict and circumstances beyond what’s needed to set up the characters’ motivations and the emotional stakes? What if, instead of the living manifestation of the cruelties and horrors of the grown-up world in Dorothy’s adolescent eyes, the Wicked Witch of the West was shown as more of a diabolical tyrant bent on conquering Oz using the ruby slippers? What if we were treated to endless exposition detailing the history and politics of Oz and the mechanics of the ruby slippers and their magical powers before eventually watching Dorothy lead the Munchkins to liberation from the evil baddie which (spoiler) turns out to be Glinda or the Wizard or perhaps the Cowardly Lion for all I care? What would any of that have to do with the movie’s timeless message that there’s no place like home?

That fairy tales do not all have to be remodelled into fantasy epics is something that Disney used to understand. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Jungle Book and the 1951 Alice in Wonderland are all films that barely have plots to speak of because they are so much more interested in exploring their worlds and characters and finding ways to enchant the audience (all three have since been given remakes by Disney which attempted to add greater stakes to their stories). When the epic narrative does work and you get an empowering film like Frozen that’s one thing, but even that is a story that relies more on emotion than logic. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has more in common with the 2010 Alice in Wonderland, a film that tried to apply a logical plot in the form of a chosen-one narrative to a story that not only worked but thrived without one. When you try to apply reason to a fantastical story, you’re inviting the viewer to apply a level of scrutiny that outlandish plots, strange happenings and bizarre characters cannot easily stand up against. That film not only completely missed the point in terms of what made the Lewis Carroll books so wonderful, it also failed on its own terms with a dull protagonist and a tired, predictable story that failed to score a single emotional beat. This movie isn’t as bad as that but it has many of the same problems.

The hero of this tale is the generically smart and resourceful Clara (Mackenzie Foy), the daughter of Marie from the original story. She and her family are going through their first Christmas together since the mother’s passing and her loss is still deeply felt. On Christmas Eve Clara and her siblings, elder sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and little brother Fritz (Tom Sweet), are each bequeathed a gift left to them by their mother. Clara receives a strange Fabergé egg, one without a key or any other apparent means of opening it. The family then heads for their usual Christmas ball, held every year by Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) where her father Benjamin (Matthew Macfadyen) expects her to put on a happy face and dance with him. Clara doesn’t feel much like dancing though and instead seeks out her godfather with whom she shares a passion for mechanisms and machinery. She learns that it was he who first built the silver egg for Marie and that she had always wanted to pass it on to her daughter. When the time comes for the children to receive their gifts from the evening’s host, Clara follows the trail leading to hers and stumbles into a world quite unlike her own.

Thus Clara finds herself in the same magical world that her mother discovered as a young girl, a world of snow, flowers, sweets and mice. However, in the years since Marie first arrived, the world of the Four Realms has fallen on hard times. Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) of the Land of Amusements has declared war on the other three realms, a war that has engulfed the realms in destruction and chaos. Clara meets the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) who remembers her mother well and reveals that she is the princess of the Four Realms. It falls onto her to defend the Lands of Sweet, Snowflakes and Flowers from the wrath of the Fourth Realm and to restore peace once again. What follows is a hero’s journey as Clara braves the dangers of the Four Realms, finds the answers she seeks to the questions left by her mother, and learns to trust in herself. Oh, also there’s a Nutcracker in the film. He’s a soldier boy played by Jayden Fowora-Knight who occasionally helps Clara but otherwise is sort of just there. There is absolutely no reason for him to be the titular character except that Disney wouldn’t be able to franchise this movie without the Nutcracker name.

Like with Tim Burton’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms demonstrates the futility of trying to incorporate a by the numbers plot into a story that’s guided by feeling rather than logic. Narrative conventions that we can see coming from a million miles away and lengthy explanations about who everyone is, what exactly is happening and where they need to go next cannot help but drain the spell of its magic. Nowhere is this more evident than in what is by default the film’s best scene. This is when Clara and the residents of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s palace gather before a stage to watch a re-enactment of the Four Realms’ history in the form of, what else, a ballet. This scene features real sets and practical effects, Tchaikovsky’s original music and a cameo by Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to become a prima ballerina in the American Ballet Theatre. This would be an inspired way to provide the audience with an entire wealth of exposition and pay tribute to the story’s origins while still allowing them to marvel in the wonder and whimsicalness of this universe. If only the Sugar Plum Fairy could stop nattering away every five seconds with her incessant commentary on what’s actually happening because she doesn’t appear to understand how ballet works! If this film had enough confidence in its own wondrousness that it didn’t feel the need to hold the viewer’s hand all the way through, this scene could have been spectacular.

Even then, however, that ballet scene would simply have been the highlight in an unremarkable film with a formulaic plot and a bland protagonist. Clara, I gather, is intended to be a response to the Victorian heroine archetype that her mother fell under; these pretty, joyful and otherwise unremarkable young girls who assume passive roles in their own stories and more often than not need to be rescued by the male hero. This heroine however is no damsel in distress; she’s clever, talented and brave, all good qualities for a main character to have. She’s also as dull as a rock. The movie operates on the assumption that making the main character technically savvy and having her fight a few soldiers counts as giving her a personality, but actions don’t mean much if there’s isn’t some kind of feeling or motivation inspiring them. The film tries to make this the grief that Clara feels from losing her mother, but there’s so little there of substance that the movie cannot hope to make it bear the weight of its emotional crux (on a side note, I find it funny how Clara was clearly the mother’s favourite to the point that her two siblings don’t matter in the slightest). Foy doesn’t manage to bring any kind of spark to her character and mostly just drifts between scenes without direction, acting like she’s more interested in looking the part of the pretty princess than she is in becoming the resourceful, adventurous girl wonder that the film wants her to be (for more on what a brilliant, daring, inventive princess with a spirited personality can be, see Shuri in Black Panther and Nausicaä in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind).

It seems that most of the effort went into making this film look the part and there are some aspects worth praising. The costumes and make up make for some fun character designs such as Knightley’s Sugar Plum Fairy, whose frilly dress and elaborate hair-do is entirely imbued with the sugary pink of cotton candy, and Freeman’s Dorsselmeyer, a Victorian nobleman sporting a steampunk ballroom get-up, an eyepatch and an owl perched on his shoulder. A film depicting exactly how a black man of such mysteriousness and eccentricity became an upstanding member of society in Victorian London would have been enormously fascinating. The production design also yields some picturesque sights, most notably in the ballet scene. Yet little of the film’s visual splendour is rooted in a personality it can call its own. The scene where Clara wonders into the enchanting forest of the snowflake realm could have been copied and pasted straight from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mother Ginger’s lair and the cartoonish clowns that inhabit it look like something Tim Burton would design. The movie mostly feels like it was guided by a corporate obligation to assemble certain scenes in some mandated order and seldom feels like it’s trying to tell the story of itself. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a movie so lost in its search for an identity that it is only through the occasional recurrence of Tchaikovsky’s music that you’re reminded what it is you’re even watching.

★★

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Élodie Yung, Joaquim de Almeida, Kirsty Mitchell, Richard E. Grant

Director: Patrick Hughes

Writer: Tom O’Connor


This is the story of two men who are both pretty bad guys. One’s an infamous hitman who kills bad guys. The other’s a professional bodyguard who protects bad guys. Circumstances force the two to put aside their differences and work together to take down a really bad guy. Wacky hijinks ensue. The odd couple trope is older than time and has been used again and again in dozens of movies from In the Heat of the Night to Rush Hour to Toy Story. This time the movie brings together a movie star so coarse and badass that he has practically turned ‘motherfucker’ into a catchphrase and another who has somehow managed to build a persona combining profanity and perversity with childlike lovability. Together they make a movie that is neither more nor less than exactly what you would expect it to be: an over-the-top buddy movie with a lot of shooting, chasing and cussing to boot.

The hitman is Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), the world’s most notorious assassin, now incarcerated. He becomes the last hope for a prosecution’s case against the heinous Belorussian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) and so Darius agrees to testify against him in exchange for the release of his equally coarse and vicious wife Sonia (Salma Hayek), also serving time for one of her husband’s crimes. Dukhovich’s reach however is very far and Amelia Roussel (Élodie Yung), the agent charged with escorting Darius, soon learns that the police and secret service are all compromised. Thus she trusts Darius’ charge to her ex-boyfriend Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), the formerly triple A rated now-disgraced executive protection agent. Together Michael and Darius must reach The Hague before Dukhovich’s trial is dismissed at 5 pm the next day while combatting the henchmen hot on their trail and each other.

This is a very dumb film and, in many ways, it is quite a generic film as well. It is just Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds being Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds and the story goes exactly how you think it would. Darius is a reckless psychopath who always charges ahead without thinking things through, which brings him at odds with Michael who is altogether more cautious and exact with his methods and wants to reach The Hague without any incident whatsoever, living by his oft-repeated motto “boring is always best”. They butt heads and hit a couple of detours along the way but we all know that eventually they’re going to start seeing eye-to-eye once they realise that they make a pretty good team. What makes it works is that Jackson and Reynolds are both so good at playing their respective personas and their chemistry is electrifying. No matter how predictable (gee, I wonder who killed the man Michael was protecting in the opening scene?) or formulaic this shoot-em-up of a story got, it is still very watchable thanks to this epic clash in personalities.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard does suffer from a case of bad timing with its depictions of carnage in London and Europe, both victims of devastating terrorist attacks in recent months, and that does steal away from the fun. It is hard to get caught up in this kind of escapist fantasy with its mindless violence, blazing guns, fiery explosions and a large, anonymous body count when it all feels just a little too close to home. But that’s not the movie’s fault; it’s just bad luck. Like Bastille Day, which was filmed in France before the attacks on the Bataclan Theatre and the Charlie Hebdo office, there is just no way they could’ve seen them coming. Maybe there’s a case to be made that, in light of these recent attacks, studios should strive to make movies that not only refuse to glorify violence and revel in sadism but also challenge those that do, but this is a movie that is not nearly smart or serious enough to take that kind of stance. The deepest this movie ever gets is when it asks whether the guy who protects baddies is worse than the guy who kills them, and anyone who thinks this movie is actually serious about engaging that question in a thoughtful debate is living in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

This is quite simply a silly, run-of-the-mill action-comedy with two great leads and it will probably hold up better when it comes out on something like Netflix with a little more distance from recent events. Apart from Jackson and Reynolds, who each give 100%, the other standout is Salma Hayek who plays Darius’ perfect woman: strong, beautiful, and positively psychopathic. The scene where Darius recounts the night they met, an evening of bloody murder accompanied by Lionel Richie, is one of the movie’s highlights. It isn’t a clever film, it isn’t an original film, and it isn’t a movie that I feel any particular desire to revisit in the future, but I laughed, I enjoyed watching Jackson and Reynolds go toe-to-toe, and I walked out feeling like I had a pretty good time.

★★★

Logan

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Dafne Keen

Director: James Mangold

Writers: Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green


In Jackman’s final turn as the character that made him a star, Fox has finally delivered the Wolverine movie that fans have been waiting for. It’s probably significant that this movie was made with the intention of being Jackman’s final turn as the metal-clawed mutant. After having already seen him featured in two solo films, one terrible and one boring, I can imagine the filmmakers felt some pressure to use this one final chance to get it right. There will be other Wolverine movies I’m sure, but there may never be another actor who embodies this character as perfectly as Hugh Jackman did. With Logan he is finally allowed to fully realise this character he helped bring to life in a way he never he could in any of the prior X-Men films and it was well worth the wait. What makes Logan great is not just the way it portrays this iconic character, but also how it stands within the X-Men franchise and how it comments on the superhero genre that has dominated Hollywood for well over a decade.

Set far in the future where mutants are all but extinct, Logan (Hugh Jackman) has long since abandoned his calling as Wolverine. Now working as a limo driver, his healing factor has faltered and he has now become weaker and weary with age. With the help of the mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Logan cares for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now suffering from dementia and no longer in control of his telepathic abilities. At this time Logan is approached by Gabriela Lopez (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse on the run from a secretive government organisation, who begs him to take in and protect an eleven-year-old girl called Laura (Dafne Keen). Hot on their trail is Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cybernetically-enhanced security officer charged with the girl’s retrieval. After an encounter where Logan learns that Laura possesses abilities similar to his own, they must go on the run with Xavier in search of a place called Eden.

After Deadpool proved once and for all that superhero movies could go for an R rating and still be massively successful, Logan followed suit and fully embraces the liberties that became available. In the very first scene Logan is protecting his car from a gang of thugs intent on stealing his tires and the fight that ensues is unlike anything we’ve seen from Wolverine before. Skulls and bones are being sliced, blood is splattering all over the place, and Logan swears like a sailor with every blow he’s dealt. However what makes the action feel so different from what we’re used to extends far beyond the blood and gore. Here Mangold does away with the rapidly edited, distantly shot action that the Marvel blockbusters tend to favour. Here the fighting is up close, intensely choreographed and much more raw and organic. When Logan gets hit, he feels it.

What makes Logan truly special though is not just the action, but also the characters and the story they tell. Logan is an old man now and Jackman plays him as a wearied soul, haunted by past traumas and losses and reluctant to ever fight again (not unlike Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven). He has grown disillusioned with the ideals he once believed in, especially now that the man who originally inspired him is little more than a raving loony. Professor X has gone senile and Stewart is loving every second of it as he rants and raves about the place while Logan tries to care for him. Keen is also great in her turn as Laura, a silent role that requires her to be as expressive as she can with her looks and gestures. All three play their role with such resolve, comedy, pathos and humanity that Logan reaches beyond what we’ve come to expect from the superhero genre and provides something altogether deeper and more stimulating.

Jackman was there when the cinematic superhero craze started, and now here he is 17 years later where the fatigue has set in for many audiences. Who better then to use as a model for the consideration and analysis of the genre and how it has evolved? There is a complex morality that comes with the superhero mythos, full of grey areas and contradictions, that goes largely unexplored (or perhaps underexplored) by superhero movies for the most part but which Logan fully embraces. The movie takes a fundamentally cynical view towards the superhero myth, establishing that the whole thing very much as a myth, the kind that only exists in children’s comic books or movies like Shane. Even after all the heroics he accomplished as Wolverine, Logan has gone on to lose everyone he cares about and none of the problems he solved or the people he’s saved have really mattered. Things have gone to hell and people have gotten hurt despite (and sometimes because) of what he’s done. And yet there are still some who believe in him and who believe that what he does is important and is for the better. The deconstruction of the genre is a fascinating one that at once dispels the myth of the superhero while also reaffirming it.

Between Logan and Deadpool, it looks like the game is very much changing for the superhero movie. As much as I enjoy the popcorn quality of the Marvel and DC movies, there is an undeniable fatigue that has set in. These franchises have adopted a certain business as usual sensibility that hasn’t exactly made them less enjoyable to watch (not for me anyway) but somewhat less fulfilling. It is for example difficult to feel that anything is really at stake in the Marvel and DC films when all of their actors are contracted to appear in future titles. It’s also true that these movies often spend so much time setting up future stories that you never really feel like you’re watching an actual story unfold. The superhero films are also falling victim to their conventions which, unless done very well, can feel tired and predictable (as it can with any genre). This is why movies like Logan are needed to shake up the genre, explore new directions and possibilities, and go deeper than any has gone before. What’s more, Logan is quite simply a great film with a profound story, excellent action, and a marvellous performance by Jackman.

★★★★★