Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2019)

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Forgery has never looked so gently compelling but ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is out and about in New York to show how unexpectedly sweet and deliciously sour it can all be.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has a NY Times Best Seller book under her belt but has fallen under writers block and other self-made hard times. Whilst trying to compile notes for a new novel she unearths letters sent by the person she wants to write about. This sets in motion a plan to spin money by forging letters from other writers and along with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), Israel gets into her groove once more.

The film is lovingly layered with spot on wit, never over-laden to breaking point, the screenplay has a fair few amounts of razor sharp insults and sniping but it’s still a film that is generally a pleasant watch, like the director has managed to settle her audience in to this calming, jazzy ambience of comedy and drama. It’s like you’re watching this talented yet hard to reach writer figure of Israel, not from a cinema but on a plush armchair with atmospheric lighting setting the mood in comfortable surroundings.

It is also true that it can feel like a biographical picture more like a lazy Sunday afternoon watch because it never changes gears and it takes a bit of time to warm to the aggressive nature of Lee as a person but once she begins her typewriter hustling and forms a bond with flamboyant Jack, the movie becomes a much more investing product.

The film does well in making Lee Israel and her fraudulent letters a rather interesting matter, it’s a story truly deserving of the spotlight and they don’t squander it. It’s made me want to find out more about her and I’m sure it’ll have the same impact on others. ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is a great commentary on the eagerness to lap up literary content and buy into the world of the writer, any unheard of material is ripe for the picking without any due thought which makes her actions all the more understandable. The writers and director never paint Lee out to be some unholy crook but more a mildly unpleasant, anxiety-ridden alcoholic with a mouth on her…so like all writers!

Melissa McCarthy brings amazing presence to the film and silences any critics to her more usual shouty comedy flicks, which was me included. Like in ‘St. Vincent’, McCarthy shines by proving great dramatic chops that she clearly has within her. Richard E. Grant is purely enigmatic with a cheeky smile helping him bring Jack to spritely life. The two actors bounce off each other so well, the characters they play clearly sharing like-minded souls in bittersweet humour and sadness. The pair of performers play the relationship beautifully with a radiant spark flaring up between them every time they’re on screen together.

It’s an intriguing film and very close to being a joyful watch. The witticisms and emotional current that carry the film are wonderfully balanced.

7/10

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Vice (2019)

Adam McKay returns with another awards big hitter after the bank crisis content of ‘The Big Short’ in 2015. His latest still concerns a grandiose story with Red, White and Blue oozing out like overfilled jam in a Stateside doughnut which Dick Cheney would eagerly gobble up but left me with a pain in my stomach and head.

After failing at education and being a general hothead, Cheney (Christian Bale) finds himself under the tutelage of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) he learns the tricksy ropes of U.S government and becomes a concocting piece of nasty work through to Vice Presidency with George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), all whilst being aided by the quiet yet important assistance of his wife Lynne (Amy Adams).

I’ll openly and happily admit I was not a fan of ‘The Big Short’ and I’m definitely no advocate for this movie either. McKay tries to be smart and stylish with an overload of cutaways and general frustrating directorial choices which further my belief that his step up from dumb big comedies like ‘Anchorman’ to Oscar fodder releases are a bridge too far.

The storytelling is all over the place and you can’t shake the fact of how messy the film is. It truly should have ended at the fake-out early rolling credits but alas you have to sit through more trying politics and failed attempts at humour to test your patience to the maximum. It’s a film which really made me angry and I understand in one sense that can work, as the actions carried out by the words of Cheney do boil the blood but the film can’t just tell an impacting, dramatic story, McKay has to feel he’s better than everyone he’s preaching too and he slams political jargon over your head to a point that is both patronising and exhausting.

There’s constant irritation to be had with the editing, from abrupt black outs, random swipes to stock footage and general non-stop fatigue by a film which doesn’t know how to keep on a one track mind, less a parallel to the Dick in question, as he was laser focused on his Republican values and scheme to puppeteer the POTUS and more a shambolic run of tiresome, try hard stylish choices which have you going from voice overs, fourth wall breaks, nature docs, news clips and a ridiculous Shakespearean-tongued conversation.

Bale as the eventual VP is a force to be reckoned with and under his extra weight and thinning white hair becomes a properly terrifying human monster. He’s one of the sole selling points to the film, you completely forget the Welsh actor is involved, he’s a masterful talent in making you despise Dick more than you may already have done before. Adams is as charismatic as ever, though in a more worrying way as she delicately yet powerfully backs and boosts her abhorrent husband. Rockwell is a great actor but his award noms for what is essentially a generic caricature of a figure spoofed countless times feels misplaced.

All in all, ‘Vice’ feels like a pointless film, serving no purpose as it can’t exactly be out to alter minds. A staunch Republican wouldn’t watch and suddenly reevaluate their political agenda nor will people on the right side of the coin go in and be any less appalled at the deplorable nature of Washington politics and the ease in which Cheney could whisper manipulation to the masses. It’s a movie only really there to make you incensed, not just at Dick’s dickiness but at the film being terrible.

4.5/10

Second Act (2019)

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Jennifer Lopez is back on the big screen after a 3 year + break which has seen the blockbuster recording artist voice characters for films or focus on a successful NBC series. It isn’t only a return to live action but she’s back to get the rocks that she got in the Big Apple hoping to gain box office success like ‘Maid in Manhattan’.

Maya Vargas (Lopez) has her hopes of becoming a store manager dashed because she doesn’t have the educational background desired by the stuffy office heads. Thanks to the interfering assistance of her godson she ends up getting an interview for a prestigious cosmetics firm, the issue is that her resume has been modified with achievements she’s never gained. As Maya tries concocting a fully organic cream she ends up on a collision course with Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens) which could prove more enlightening than expected.

Going in with little expectations, I can safely say I exited pleasantly surprised by a film that is a fairly fun. As this wintry set movie goes and ticks off boxes for almost every recognisable New York location, you end up with a feature that has a messy yet glittering story of love, self-worth and inner confidence ringing nicely as themes, even if they all muddle together in a plot stitched together by the alluring presence of J-Lo.

There are more than a couple of story moments which feel off, whether contrived or insanely cheesy and the ending is as predictable as they come, there’s also a character called Ariana played by Charlyne Yi who is highly annoying; her vertigo and random introduction of kinkiness are played for laughs but are far from amusing. Also, a weak semblance of villainy is attempted but doesn’t truly lift off the ground but apart from the obvious rom-com pitfalls the film isn’t awful.

A huge story reveal feels like an overly sudden and sappy point but gladly the content of this narrative improves as the film goes on thanks to the star quality of the pair in question. Lopez is a damn fine actor it has to be said, she has this alluring quality of showing effortless comedy chops and an emotional anchor to aid the film of a street-smart woman trying to win her shot when presented with a second chance. Hudgens is a semi adversary to begin with, meaning we get to witness well played sneering glamour and warming appeal to her role.

‘Second Act’ whips up charm, has a swirl of light humour and intoxicating performances with sweet chemistry making the film a cheap yet worthy product that could fly off the shelves like the beauty cream Maya designs.

6/10

Destroyer (2019)

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Harsh and never letting up, ‘Destroyer’ is a ferociously tough thriller; one which certainly leaves you close to stunned silence as the credits materialise.

After receiving a tainted $100 note, detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) believes something from her past has come back. Years ago, she and Chris (Sebastian Stan) infiltrated a gang and their leader could have returned. By any means she can, Bell hopes to get to the man behind it all and close a dark chapter in her life.

Karyn Kusama who previously directed the chillingly great ‘The Invitation’ is behind this near masterful work. The way she ensures that her cast and the story keep on track as this rough and rasping crime which you can’t look away from are fantastic. The story she’s working with is just as merciless. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have, apart from the aforementioned horror film, written a run of mostly comedy duds, this is by and large a soar to excellence. The story is cleverly wound and the way the narrative flits back and forth between past and present draws you in.

Julie Kirkwood’s cinematography is as blistering as the unfiltered heat of the California sun, soaking almost every frame of the film. You can really feel the yellow stained edgy nature of this thriller set in the aptly named Golden State. On top of the great visuals is some brooding music from Theodore Shapiro, whose score crackles with a sharp intensity amplifying the tension of the gritty world of which Erin traipses through.

There is a mother/daughter relationship which does seem like a detracting factor at first but it becomes an all encompassing touch of heart straining to reach through the blood, murkiness and nastiness that the central detective has been a part of for too long. Kidman portrays Erin searching amongst the grime of her past with a sensational presence. It’s a peak performance from the actor who embodies the worn off duty cop with sun-bleached skin, frayed hair and sunken eyes from the make-up department complimenting the fascinating turn from Kidman.

Opening and closing on Erin Bell’s eyes, this movie sees us looking at what is mostly a bleary environment for her nowadays, the why to this becomes clearer and all the more haunting as the film develops. An uneasy watch but a great one.

7.5/10

The Mule (2019)

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Dirty Harry returns to the big screen after a 6 year gap and he’s also behind the camera for this drama based on a New York Times story concerning a octogenarian who took up a position as a drugs courier for a Mexican gang. Does Clint Eastwood’s comeback zing or should he have rested a little longer?

Earl Stone (Eastwood) is far from the ideal father and husband; he’s missed multiple family moments due to his horticultural hobby. As he hopes to make amends for his granddaughter Ginny’s (Taissa Farmiga) upcoming wedding, Earl is propositioned with the notion of running mysterious packages across Illinois in return for large sums of money but he may have taken up this role at the wrong time as a police force led by Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) are on the prowl to stop cartel activities.

‘The Mule’ attempts to be this endearing old aged caper with heart but that hope is somewhat dashed, as the whole film feels trying and Eastwood doesn’t seem to know how to whittle the story down when necessary. It is a film which takes a while to get into gear and doesn’t sail smoothly for long. It also doesn’t help that you often want the police department to hurry their pursuits so some actual dramatic tension can arrive into the fold.

Screenwriter for another Clint outing with ‘Gran Torino’, Nick Schenk takes the NY Times article and gives the murky world of cartel crime a good lick of paint and doses some rare moments of charm into the account of an elder getting mixed up in dangerous behaviour but on the whole it’s a screenplay that totters forward like doddery Earl. The film probably caters for the older generation who’ll chuckle at the unfiltered dialogue which he spurts out casual un-PC nature, racism and a line where he says “thanks dykes” are just painful and thwart the potential for a fully engaging, charismatic trip.

As a director, Eastwood lets any dream of investing crime tension subside and in its place stands an out of touch character led tale of redemption rife with plot contrivances that doesn’t even feel that well fleshed out for a character piece. As an actor he carries the film well, he has a rugged yet soft sparkle but if you want a heart-warming movie with an aged criminal then look no further than ‘The Old Man and the Gun’. 

By the 6th or 7th drug run in this film you can’t help but realise how they’ve missed out on making this a more interesting picture and it has you close to calling out for a roadblock to end the runs once and for all.

5.5/10

 

Mary Queen of Scots (2019)

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“Orf with their heads”. This Queen of Hearts decree is an violent literary line and an unpleasant truth for real life figure, Mary Stuart. The lucid hijinks of Lewis Carroll’s creation may not be there but the duelling nature of power and the cartoon characters’ behaviour based on Mary’s temperament most certainly is.

After returning home to Scotland in 1561, Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) takes over royal duties from her half-brother. Due to her blood line she has rightful claim to the throne in England, but that is taken by Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). As the years pass by, the arguments of men tip the balance between the sisters and an heir borne by Mary could help her claim what she believes is rightfully hers.

Josie Rourke takes charge of this period drama and her theatre background is evident. She has been artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse since 2012 and her stage know-how helps give the film a theatrical buzz, something akin to that sensation you get when watching a live show. The shifting powers within the story are ones you could easily picture being acted out on stage, though for a film, there are times that the theatrical element feels like it’s a movie just ticking off each historical chapter like a scene in a play.

Rourke does show she has a great handle on the back and forth dramas of this politically laden period piece but at a few spots it feels like the director’s reins are slipping ever so slightly, as if the film is slowing down too much. Adding to Rourke’s confident handle on drama and actor management are some stunning visuals from John Mathieson; his work reflects the royal production value, with both England and Scotland looking gorgeous on screen. All in all, ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ is a glorious film to look at.

The costume and make up deserve our endless curtsies. The detail to be seen throughout this film is incredible, from jewellery to ruffled accessories, dresses, armour and hair pieces, the film is a marvel of fashion and 16th century period vision. It isn’t only the look of the people that stirs a pleasing response, the see-sawing political alignments between Protestant and Catholic, Scotland and England and Mary and Elizabeth are fascinating to watch on the most part. Shadowy whisperings in privy counsels are explored well, the way these men attempt to puppeteer the forces of the women they seek to serve are fleshed out nicely. On that note, this film is a tale for the ages which sits neatly within the current climate of power between women and men. Mary’s boldness is a trait we should respect and Elizabeth’s compassion and ailments are virtuous trademarks.

Ronan and Robbie are thoroughly compelling, their turns as rival women in charge are spellbinding, yet neither steals the show or feels like a person to root for over the other. It’s a film that sees them both somehow lost in a time of great heartache and civil unrest. Come their one and only scene together you can’t help but be truly lost in their performances, which makes their meeting amongst some hanging linen that much more resoundingly effective.

‘Mary Queen of Scots’ knows how to swirl together conspiracy, words of war and consequent bloodshed. If its story isn’t altogether cinematic and solidly formed you can rely on the talents of the two actors to get you through a turbulent time in history.

7/10

Beautiful Boy (2019)

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Based on two memoirs; one from a father and the other from the son, this biographical film focuses on the uncertainty and pain of raising a child who has become severely dependent on drugs. If you consider the powerful content you’ll quickly realise how lacking ‘Beautiful Boy’ is, in terms of emotional heft.

All through their lives, David Sheff (Steve Carell) and his son Nic (Timothee Chalamet) have had a great father-son bond but with Nic now in his teens and putting off college, David’s worst fears are realised when he comes to understand Nic is taking a cocktail of different drugs to get through life and has become increasingly addicted to crystal meth. David hopes to learn more about the effects of meth and regain his son’s affections but he could end up losing Nic completely.

Felix Van Groeningen, in his first English feature as director, manages to capture some better moments in an otherwise disengaging film, these stem from the strains of family drama and the times we see Nic by himself, struggling to keep his face straight and wishing to escape a life he sees as black and grey. On the most part though this is a movie that doesn’t grip you at all and is far to carefully put together. The sheen of it all is not what a movie concerning this drug fuelled subject matter should possess.

Oh boy, there are some beautiful shots in this film but whereas they’d normally be a good quality for a feature, they become a glistening distraction from a story that needs to look and feel much grittier. Who would be standing out in the mist on a bend in the road under some perfectly crooked trees, what mum would be situated neatly in front of an oval gap on a balcony overlooking a neat skyline when discussing the tragic downward spiral of their son. It all looks to pristine, as if the film doesn’t know how to make itself grimier and more alarming to sit up and pay attention to.

‘Beautiful Boy’ is extremely lacking in emotional substance, call me cold-hearted but I just never found the film struck a chord with me. Usually a film with this sort of content would make me tear up, if not at least get misty eyed but instead without warning my eyelids wanted to rest and there was utterly no gut-wrenching impact from it. I doubt it’s my stony nature because I weep at more and more things, it’s likely because this film is a saccharine trip of melodrama with songs appearing almost every 5 minutes doing little to connect and more to guffaw at the attempt to elicit a sad response.

Chalamet is the biggest positive within the movie. It’s like only he knows the mood of the piece he’s involved in and he plays this troubled figure with a captivating touch. The trauma of addiction is felt every time he turns up on screen whereas the likes of Carell, Amy Ryan and Maura Tierney just can’t quite to reach the power of their young cohort.

‘Beautiful Boy’ is a film that is too clean for a worrying account on drug addiction. It is also one trying to be emotionally manipulative but when it cannot even manipulate to feel any emotion, that can never be good.

5/10