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.

BlacKkKlansman – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Easily one of Spike Lee’s most entertaining and accessible films, BlacKkKlansman depicts a true story from more than 40 years ago that’s still relevant today.

Adam Driver and John David Washington star in BlacKkKlansman. Photo copyright 2018 Focus Features.

Based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, this film focuses on his time as a rookie cop with the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s as its first African-American officer. Young, ambitious, and college-educated, Stallworth (John David Washington) despises his assignment in the records room and longs to be a detective. To his delight, Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) soon promotes him to work undercover when a former Black Panther speaks at a local college.

Plan to Infiltrate the KKK

Stallworth immediately forms a bond with the attractive student union organizer (Laura Harrier) and uses her to gain more information about the speaker’s possible threat to the community. His subterfuge and their romance become important subplots that tie in with the main storyline, which is Ron’s bold plan to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan organization by using a white undercover officer (Adam Driver as a Jewish detective named Flip Zimmerman) to physically represent him, while he manipulates local Klansmen and even Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) over the telephone.

After being threatened at gunpoint by a Klansman, Flip has had enough. He angrily tells Ron: “To you it’s a crusade, for me it’s a job.” As the case continues, however, it becomes less of a job for Flip and less of a crusade for Ron until the two meet somewhere in the middle. Unexpected humor weaves its way throughout the film, as does the theme of parallel marginalization of and prejudice against African-Americans and Jews.

Powerful Storytelling

Lee does an excellent job building suspense as the black/white, police/civilian tensions come to a climax. One particularly effective example comes near the end of the film as scenes compare and contrast Klansman watching D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation at a rally, and black students listening to a guest speaker (Harry Belafonte) describing a lynch mob’s horrific torture and murder of a mentally disabled black man accused of a heinous crime against a white woman.

The film’s most powerful moments are in the actual storytelling (based on Stallworth’s book) and the fine performances by Washington, Driver, and Grace. Lee takes the morality lesson too far with a hate-filled introduction by Alec Baldwin portraying an actor in a propaganda film and a clip from Gone With the Wind depicting the aftermath of war, and ending the movie with disturbing news footage from 2017 about race riots and white supremacy marches across the United States. The message in Ron Stallworth’s story is loud and clear without these unnecessary directorial flourishes.

BlacKkKlansman

  • Based on a true story, the first African-American police detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department leads an investigation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Stars: Adam Driver, John David Washington, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier, Ryan Eggold, Robert John Burke, Michael Buscemi, Jasper Paakkonen, Paul Walter Hauser
  • Director: Spike Lee
  • Genre: Biography/Crime
  • Run Time: 125 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, including racist epithets, disturbing material/violent material and some sexual references)
  • Watch the trailer for BlacKkKlansman.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Betty White: Myth, Mirth, and Merch

By Leslie C. Halpern

Although she has detractors, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has evolved into the Betty White of the legal system. Most people – even young people – lovingly embrace this living legend. Now 85 years old, the diminutive Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States is the subject of the documentary RBG, a full-length feature directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Tickets for the one-time screening at the 2018 Florida Film Festival on Saturday, April 14th sold out quickly after going on sale a couple of weeks before the show.

Myth

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a life-long crusader for women’s equality and basic human rights for all, and has a reputation around Washington D.C. as an outspoken liberal queen who, though reviled by many conservatives, is adored by nearly everyone else. It’s often assumed that she has an opinion on everything and sits on the edge of her chair eager to give the dissenting vote. In reality, her children and late husband, Marty, (interviewed in RBG) describe her as quiet, reserved, ladylike, and serious, not prone to emotional outbursts. In the documentary, she comments on her often-quoted observations about politics, “Never respond in anger because it’s self-defeating.”

Likewise, Betty White (now well into her nineties) has myths surrounding her. Although Ms. White gives the appearance of being the same adorable eccentric off-screen that we see onscreen, she’s actually an intelligent actress, comedian, and businesswoman who has proven herself willing to take on vastly different roles during a television and film career spanning more than 60 years. She’s also adaptable enough to change with the times in order to remain relevant with her loyal fans and younger generations just discovering her.

Mirth

RBG meme

According to the documentary RBG, Justice Ginsburg rarely cracks a smile or makes a joke. That was her late husband’s job – in addition to the cooking. Though she’s known for being erudite and articulate, there’s also something inherently amusing about the feisty 5’ 0½ ” octogenarian in her over-sized glasses and drab black Justice robes adorned with frilly collars.

Kate McKinnon’s impression of her is a popular character who shows up frequently on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live. McKinnon’s over-the-top version depicts the same philosophies of Justice Ginsburg, but the opposite personality, expressing sexual innuendo and biting barbs, often punctuated with an energetic dance and the taglines: “And that’s a Ginsburg” or “He just got Ginsburged.”

Betty White meme

Betty White also has a strong connection to Saturday Night Live. Older audiences grew up watching her on television, but younger audiences became aware of her after she starred in recent television series, such as Hot in Cleveland and Boston Legal, and films (The Proposal and You Again), and perhaps most notably in a Super Bowl commercial for Snickers.

Her newfound popularity with the younger generations of fans included a successful Facebook campaign launched to have her host Saturday Night Live. She claims to have been asked several times to host the show, but feared performing in front of a live audience. She eventually hosted the show in 2010 after the Facebook campaign.

Merch

Another similarity between the two women is the merchandise – the mugs, the tee shirts, the socks, the DVDs, and other items. Amazon.com even offers a “Dissent Collar Necklace” for sale in Justice Ginsburg’s honor. And books, there are lots of published books. There’s Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley, The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong…and You Can Too by Bryant Johnson, The Ruth Bader Ginsburg Coloring Book by Tom F. O’Leary, and others, including her best-selling memoir My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mary Hartnett. Try Googling Ruth Bader Ginsburg and you’ll get more than 467,000 results.

The Golden Girls

Ms. White is no literary slouch either with several published books to her credit including her New York Times bestselling memoir If You Ask Me: (And Of Course You Won’t) and dozens of other books written about her by others, including the comic book, Female Force: Betty White by Patrick McCray and illustrated by Todd Tennant. Her image also is represented in a Funko POP TV action figure, mini cutout standee, celebrity mask, and posters, plus many more items where she’s joined by fellow cast members from The Golden Girls, Hot in Cleveland, You Again, and other productions.

Youth-Oriented Culture

With our youth-oriented disposable culture that promptly dismisses obsolete celebrities after their 15 minutes of fame, it’s amazing how these two significantly older women have captured the imaginations of so many and maintained this public interest over the long term. Perhaps even more curious is how the two women have overcome the initial surprise of their late-in-life popularity and accepted their status with grace and humor. In the documentary RBG, Justice Ginsburg (who recently celebrated another birthday) notes in disbelief: “I am 84 years old and everyone wants to take a picture with me.”

It’s anybody’s guess who’ll become the next non-traditional, over-age American icon who serendipitously captures the fluctuating zeitgeist.

For More Information

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg on IMDB
  • Betty White on IMDB

 

Book Reviews: From My Nightstand

By Leslie C. Halpern

Much of my professional work involves reviewing books assigned by someone else for book review sites. So when I select books to review from the towering stack on my nightstand to review for my blog, you can be sure I enjoyed them enough to go to the extra effort. My nightstand includes books from authors I met at conventions, book signings, book fairs, and other events. Sometimes they just arrive without warning in the mail.

The stack is still towering and threatens to topple over at any minute, but of the past several books I’ve read recently from my nightstand, these are my three favorites. Find out more information about each book from Amazon.com by clicking on the highlighted links.

The Bait Man

The Bait Man by DL Havlin. (Paperback) Taylor and Seale Publishing, LLC. 315 pages. 978-1943789450.This mystery-suspense novel takes readers deep into Florida’s snake-filled swamps for an exciting story about Chessie, a brash young woman who works for a small fishing business and her harrowing experiences with her nemesis, Rooster, a vile, foul-mouthed bait man. Told mostly through Chessie’s first-person account, the story pits the former wild child and ex-Marine against the huge, hulking Rooster from their first encounter. After finding teeth and bone in frozen blocks of bait that Rooster provided, Chessie is convinced he’s a murderer and enlists the help of her policeman brother, Reading, to help her discover the truth. With or without police assistance, the strong-willed, thick-headed young woman puts her life in danger on numerous occasions to set a trap for the bait man. Thrilling and suspenseful, this novel reveals its secrets slowly as it reaches a satisfying conclusion.

Journey

Journey by Gary Roen. (Paperback) Legacy Publishing. 252 pages. 978-1937952075. This collection of short stories (both science fiction and general fiction) takes readers on journeys into many “what if” scenarios. Although some of the stories are flash fiction at just 66 words, most of the pieces are several pages long. The stories cover themes including revenge, lust, and greed, sometimes set within the publishing industry. Florida and Chicago serve as backdrops, along with some outer space locations. Each story has the element of surprise for the reader when characters behave unexpectedly and plots twist in curious ways. Seven of the short stories focus on the adventures of a hideous human-sized teddy bear named Slotski who has sharp claws and bloody fangs that come in handy when he’s angry. For the most part, however, his mission is to help people who unknowingly need his services. These quirky stories make an interesting and diverse collection.

Beauty Lessons

Beauty Lessons by Terry Godbey. (Paperback) Quercus Review Press. 63 pages. 978-0974307091. This lovely chapbook was an annual book award winner in the Quercus Review Press poetry series a few years ago. Divided into three sections, “Ready or Not,” “Only Child,” and “Hunger,” the book is loosely chronological and traces the author’s childhood (including her first kiss and awakening sexuality) to her adult life. Throughout the years, she often focuses on beauty, as in “My Face at 46” in which she writes: “I’ve seen enough of my mouth / wrinkled as a drawstring purse, / my parade of big teeth, / the two in front tipping forward / like drunks.” Her critical eye looks outward also. From “Produce Man”: “He’ll fuss over vegetables and fruit / only to watch them leave / in the arms of women / who never look at him / among the mangoes and artichokes / and find him appetizing, / this famished man / who feeds us all.” Sensitive, insightful, and accessible, it’s easy to see how this accomplished poet and her delightful collection won first place in the annual contest.