Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on the memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? by author and convicted forger Lee Israel, this new biopic stars comedy actress Melissa McCarthy in what’s probably her least-funny role to date: a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited, alcoholic has-been author who lies, cheats, steals, and cons her way into paying each month’s rent. If it weren’t for McCarthy’s inherent likability, the character would be completely unsympathetic to most audience members.

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant star in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Photo copyright 2018 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

A best-selling biographer in the 1970s and 1980s, who wrote about actress Tallulah Bankhead , cosmetics queen  Estee Lauder , and reporter Dorothy Kilgallen, Israel’s inability to play nicely with others and adapt with the times causes her to fall out of favor by 1991. Bookstores offer her previous publications at 75% off and her literary agent (Jane Curtain) won’t return her calls. She loses her full-time job at The New Yorker because she’s drinking alcohol at her desk and spews profanity at the boss. No one is interested in her idea for a biography on singer Fanny Brice. And her aging cat is desperately ill.

Embellishment of Letters

With no money to pay for veterinary care or her monthly rent (and no friends or relatives other than her equally impoverished and alcoholic gay buddy, Jack [Richard E. Grant]), Israel begins embellishing letters by prominent authors and selling them to specialty book sellers. This embellishment of adding an interesting postscript soon turns into completely fabricating letters by literary greats (including Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker), and then eventually into stealing original letters from archival sources and replacing them with her forgeries.

Her crimes appear to be natural extensions of who she was personally and professionally before alcohol and desperation took control of her thinking. She has no qualms about misrepresenting her identity on the telephone or stealing someone else’s clothes from the coat rack. She’s always been fascinated with the writings and performance styles of famous people and expresses that through her biographies. Her offences escalate from petty theft and deception into crimes so serious the FBI becomes involved in tracking her down.

Melissa McCarthy Excels

McCarthy provides some outstanding work here, as someone who’s in denial about her situation and considers her criminal activities to be “literary treasures” and her life’s greatest work. Alone, afraid, and on the brink of disaster, Lee Israel is not a person most of us would like in our lives.

Her prickly personality, drinking, and deception have created her dire circumstances. She created this mess entirely by herself, and yet McCarthy reveals the character’s humanity hiding beneath the off-putting exterior. Grant offers a fine performance as well – another pathetic character whose bad judgment causes his formidable problems.

Even with occasional laughs, this film portrays a seedy story inhabited by people who are their own worst enemies. It’s a sad tale, but certainly one worth telling.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

  • Fired from her job and virtually unemployable because of her alcoholism and abrasive personality, former best-selling author Lee Israel turns to crime to pay her bills in this true story based on the memoir of the same name.
  • Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Jane Curtain, Stephen Spinella, Gregory Korostishevsky
  • Director: Marielle Heller
  • Genre: Crime / Briography
  • Run Time: 106 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.


Beautiful Boy – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on two best-selling memoirs by father, David Sheff, (Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction) and his son, Nic Sheff, (Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines), this film focuses primarily on how drug abuse undermines the once-close father-son relationship, causes pain within the family, and damages the addict’s brain.

Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet star in Beautiful Boy. Photo copyright 2018 Amazon Studios.

As depicted in the film, Nic Sheff (Timothee Chalamet) has a childhood far better than most children experience. Living in a custom-built home on a gorgeous plot of land in California with his devoted father, David (Steve Carell) and loving stepmother (Maura Tierney), and two young siblings who idolize him, Nic enjoys a loving family, material wealth, good health, and a talent for writing and illustrating. His mother (Amy Ryan) lives out of town, but they stay in touch often.

Unanswered Questions

So why does he resort to drugs and alcohol in his late teens to fill the black hole inside him? Why does he lie, steal, and engage in other risky and self-destructive behaviors? How does he overcome his addiction? You won’t find out in this movie, which focuses on the past and current relationship between father and son. David’s frequent flashbacks, which can be disorienting at times, return to fun family times when Nic was ages 4, 6, and 12 in a non-linear collection of scenes that show how hard his parents tried over the years to create a healthy environment for their children.

David finally becomes aware of Nic’s long-time drug abuse at age 18, but by then he’s already deep into addiction, which is followed by relapses and recoveries for the next few years. Lovely childhood scenes are contrasted to grotesque addiction scenes that keep the movie cinematically interesting. David, a successful freelance writer, researches information on addiction through the internet and mental health professionals, and even conducts his own field experiment.

Heartfelt Performances

Perhaps the books delve more into elements that could help others who have friends or relatives in the throes of addiction, but this film provides more of a voyeuristic approach to a family in crisis. Steve Carell, normally known for his silliness and fearlessness of doing anything for a laugh, reveals those same traits here, but with a twist. He’s the silly father playing with his children one day, the desperate dad who’ll do anything to save his child the next.

Carell delivers a heartfelt performance, as does Chalamet in his portrayal of Nic, a beautiful boy who somehow manages to retain his good looks despite a crystal meth addiction that normally ravages its victims. His performance is stellar, but the makeup team seemed reluctant to mar his handsome face, which left Chalamet’s acting alone to convince us of his addiction.

Conversely, an oppressive soundtrack takes some of the pressure off the actors by warning that another drug-crazed disappointment is on the way and jangling our nerves by the time it arrives. This film offers plenty to see and feel, but not much new to think about.

Beautiful Boy

  • Based on a true story, an 18-year-old boy’s addiction to alcohol and crystal meth has a devastating effect on him and his family.
  • Stars: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Timothy Hutton, Christian Convery, Oakley Bull
  • Director: Felix Van Groeningen
  • Writers: screenplay by Luke Davies and Felix Van Groeningen, based on books by David Sheff and Nic Sheff
  • Genre: Biography, Drama
  • Run Time: 112 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for drug content throughout, and brief sexual material)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Johnny English Strikes Again – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

In a spoof of the James Bond film Skyfall (2012), this third installment of the Johnny English franchise brings back retired secret agent, Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson), after a mysterious cyber-attack exposes all currently employed undercover British agents working for M17.

Rowan Atkinson stars in Johnny English Strikes Again. Photo copyright 2018 Universal Pictures.

English has been working at a private school as a geography teacher while simultaneously training his young students as junior spies using his questionable skills and knowledge. Against her better judgment, the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) enlists English to find out who launched the attack and restore order back to London, which is in complete chaos. An old-fashioned technophobe, English finds his former partner, Bough (Ben Miller) who’s slightly more tech-savvy, and plans his mission to locate and neutralize the mastermind.

A Billionaire Computer Genius

Dismissing high-tech weaponry, state-of-the-art vehicles, and new communication devices, English selects a basic gun and an Aston Martin. Not able to operate a cell phone, he stops at hard-to-find pay phones along the road to make calls. Much of the humor is based on his analogue sensibilities pitted against modern-day machinery. The villainous Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), a young billionaire computer genius with celebrity status, naturally wants to take over the world by manipulating its technology.

English’s physicality (especially delightful in an extended virtual reality scene) likewise competes against Volta’s intellect. There’s also a wild card among these two mismatched rivals: Volta’s Russian girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko [a former Bond girl in Quantum of Solace]) isn’t exactly who she pretends to be. Curiously, she’s better with weapons and more physically fit than English, and seemingly more intelligent – at least in terms of common sense and survival skills – than Volta.

Rowan Atkinson’s Physical Comedy

The laughs are few, but the chuckles are many. Atkinson delivers some memorable comedic scenes during a carjacking, while at a nightclub dancing, and hiding inside a coat of armor. The script (by screenwriter William Davies) is humorous, but Atkinson’s physical comedy and interactions with Miller offer the film’s greatest highlights. Lacy’s villain is as generic as Kurylenko is exotic.

It’s fun to watch some of the creative set-ups for future gags. Rather than random non-sequiturs, much of the humor relies on callbacks from people, places, and things mentioned in the movie. Bond aficionados may enjoy the many references to Skyfall, and of James Bond films in general.

Johnny English Strikes Again

  • A dim-witted technophobic former British spy is brought back from retirement after a cyber-attack reveals the identities of all current undercover British agents working for M17.
  • Stars: Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Ben Miller, Olga Kurylenko, Jake Lacy
  • Director: David Kerr
  • Genre: Action Comedy
  • Run Time: 88 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for action violence, rude humor, language, and brief rear nudity)

Reviews of other recent movies about crime:

American Animals


The Death of Stalin

The Old Man & the Gun

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

The Old Man & the Gun – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Addictions to drugs, alcohol, and sex don’t usually make the news unless the addicts are already famous. In this true story based on a New Yorker article by David Grann, a man named Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) has a life-long addiction to politely robbing banks with a smile (and a gun) that make him newsworthy and notorious.

The Old Man & the Gun stars Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek. Photo copyright 2018 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Even in his later years when he teams with two other elderly men for his robbery sprees – the early 1980’s are the years covered in this film – Tucker wears a nice suit, tie, and boots while “on the job.” Although he carries a concealed gun and shows it to threaten bank tellers and managers, he’s non-violent and likely never used the gun for anything other than show. Likewise, the other two members of the so-called “Over the Hill Gang” (Danny Glover and Tom Waits) drive, haul the money, and carry out their respective tasks without causing any unnecessary disruption or fear throughout the bank.

A Sweet-Talking Bank Robber

Sometimes no one even knows the bank had been robbed except for the employee who’d been involved. Such is the case when burned-out police detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck) takes his two children with him to the bank for a quick transaction. He’s as shocked as everyone else when the branch manager announces they’d just been robbed. Suddenly, Hunt becomes intrigued by this sweet-talking elderly bank robber, and the case renews his enthusiasm for his job. It isn’t long before Hunt notices similar crimes across Texas and other nearby states – all with the same descriptions of a suave bank robber.

For his part, Tucker shows little signs of slowing down or changing his patterns. He robs banks, eventually gets caught and incarcerated (18 times), and then breaks out of prison most of those times. Other than one brief marriage as a young man, crime is his way of life. He says for him robbing banks isn’t about making a living, but about living. That is, until he meets Jewel (Sissy Spacek), an honest, earthy woman with a horse farm…and lots of integrity. How can these two opposites possibly work out a relationship unless one of them is willing to change?

The Hunt and the Jewel

The romantic relationship is secondary to the main story, however, which is the cat-and-mouse game between Tucker and Hunt. Both men seem to enjoy the challenge, and thrive on playing their roles (as do the actors Redford and Affleck who portray these characters). Acting is outstanding among the central characters: Redford (in his announced final role) oozes charm whether he’s robbing a bank, stealing jewelry, lying to his girlfriend, or taunting a police detective; Affleck’s character gradually evolves throughout the film and revives professionally and personally through the biggest “hunt” of his life; and Spacek’s character, Jewel, sparkles so brightly men of any age or chosen career path could fall in love with her. The cars, set design, costumes, and music are a flashback to the early 1980’s that help bring the story alive without much contrivance (although there’s a major continuity error involving a photograph).

Make no mistake. Forrest Tucker is a criminal, not a hero and definitely not a family man. The fact that his house faces a cemetery reveals more truth about this adrenaline junkie than his softly spoken lies, assurances, and compliments ever could.

The Old Man & the Gun

  • Based on a true story, this film focuses on the later years of The Over the Hill Gang, three senior men who rob banks more for fun than profit, led by career criminal Forrest Tucker.
  • Stars: Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Tika Sumpter, Elisabeth Moss
  • Director: David Lowery
  • Genre: Crime Drama
  • Run Time: 93 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)
  • Click here to watch a trailer for The Old Man & the Gun.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.



The Oath – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

As if the holidays weren’t stressful enough with extra expenses, travel arrangements, snarled traffic, and sibling rivalry, try adding diverse political views into the Thanksgiving mix. That’s what happens in The Oath, a dark action comedy written and directed by Ike Barinholtz (Suicide Squad and The Mindy Project), who also stars in the film.

The Oath stars Ike Barinholtz, who also wrote and directed the film. Photo copyright 2018 Roadside Attractions.

Barinholtz portrays Chris, a liberal white man happily married to his equally liberal black wife, Kai, (Tiffany Haddish). They live with their two children in a beautiful suburban neighborhood. They watch in disbelief as a White House spokeswoman announces on television that all U.S. citizens are requested to sign a Patriot’s Oath (a loyalty waiver to the President). Americans have nearly a year – until the day after Thanksgiving – to sign the oath. Although not required by law, the Government offers tax benefits and other perks for signing…and perhaps a visit from the Citizens Protection Unit (CPU) for those who refuse to sign.

Nationwide Frenzy

Chris, a social media addict, observes the nationwide frenzy of increasing violence, strange disappearances of non-signers (including Seth Rogen), and home invasions by the CPU as Thanksgiving Day approaches. His conservative family is coming to their house for the holiday and his parents (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis) have issued a no-political discussions rule, which Chris immediately discards upon their arrival. His ultra-conservative brother (real-life brother Jon Barinholtz) and his girlfriend (Meredith Hagner) wage an ongoing verbal battle with the hosting family. His sister (Carrie Brownstein) and her ailing husband (Jay Duplass) offer a more neutral stance.

Just when it seems like things can’t get worse, two officers from the CPU (Billy Magnussen and John Cho) arrive at the house to question Chris about not signing the oath. Utilizing the traditional good cop/bad cop roles, the CPU officers escalate an already tense environment. Tension leads to panic, and panic leads to violence. Soon the scene is out of control. Who reported Chris? Where will the violence lead?

Dark Political Comedy

Although this may not sound like the basis for a comedy, this dark film is comical throughout. These ordinary people are thrust into an extraordinary circumstance that isn’t likely to have a happy ending. The actors play for laughs, but there’s also a darker subtext about angry, close-minded extremists taking on the traits they despise in the other. This is Barinholtz’s directorial debut, and while the humor occasionally misses the mark, the timely cautionary tale might prompt more peaceful political discussions around Thanksgiving dinner tables this year.

The Oath

  • Reflecting the political divisiveness going on in the country, a family’s Thanksgiving celebration turns violent when opposing views derail the holiday.
  • Stars: Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, John Cho, Billy Magnussen, Jon Barinholtz, Nora Dunn, Chris Ellis, Carrie Brownstein, Jay Duplass, Max Greenfield
  • Writer-Director: Ike Barinholtz
  • Genre: Romantic Action Comedy
  • Run Time: 93 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout and some drug use)
  • Click here to watch a trailer for The Oath.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.