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Green Book - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 15, 2018 at 5:35 PM


Given his background as a comedic director, “Green Book” might seem like an unconventional project for Peter Farrelly to tackle. In a way, though, you could argue that his career has come full circle with this film. Farrelly’s directorial debut was “Dumb and Dumber,” which centered on two guys who embark on a cross-country road trip. “Green Book” has a similar setup at its core, although the tone couldn’t be more different. Along with his brother Bobby, Peter has made some other very funny movies over the years, including “There's Something About Mary,” “Kingpin,” and “Me, Myself & Irene.” Like those films, “Green Book” has an unexpected balance of humor and heart, but it also encompasses something more. It finds the elder Farrelly Brother at his most mature, demonstrating how far he’s come since Harry and Lloyd revved up the Shaggin’ Wagon.

 

Between “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “A History of Violence,” and “Eastern Promises,” Viggo Mortensen has built up a reputation as an onscreen badass. He plays another tough as nails character in “Green Book,” although he’s clearly put on a few pounds to do the role justice. Mortensen plays Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a New York bouncer who’s rough around the edges, but loves his wife (Linda Cardellini) and children unconditionally. To make ends meet before Christmas, Tony accepts a gig driving a Jamaican-American pianist named Don Shirley across the Deep South. Mahershala Ali plays Shirley, who believes he can make a difference by playing his music in parts of America that remain heavily segregated. He underestimates just how much the South differs from the North, however.


The film’s appeal largely stems from the Odd Couple dynamic between Tony and Shirley. The two naturally don’t hit it off at first with one being a streetwise yet intolerant brute and the other being an educated yet naïve artist. Although they’re quick to judge a book by its cover, both end up having more layers than meets the eye. What’s interesting about their relationship is that neither man has all the answers. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, which ultimately helps to balance them out. Along the way, Tony stuffs his face with pizza, sandwiches, and fried chicken, which he introduces to Shirley.


Just as Tony spends a good portion of the run time eating, “Green Book” is a diverse smorgasbord. At times the film tastes like the purest of comfort food, as Shirley helps the ineloquent Tony write letters to wife. The movie also has nutritional value, however, examining how race relations have changed since the 1960s and how they haven’t. Walking into the theater, most viewers will likely be unfamiliar with “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which indicated which ventures would give service to African-American travelers. While the Green Book has been discontinued for over fifty years, racial tensions still run high throughout the country. Watching Shirley face racism and even physical abuse when he walks into the wrong establishments, it’s impossible not to be reminded of injustices that make headlines today. This makes it all the more empowering when Shirley overcomes ignorance and Tony overcomes his own prejudices.


“Green Book” earns comparison to the best road trip movies ever made, from “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” to “Midnight Run.” It’s also hard to watch the film without drawing comparison to “Driving Miss Daisy,” although the fact that the races are reversed creates an entirely different parallel. At the beginning of the film, Tony sees himself as underprivileged compared to the wealthy Shirley. In the South, though, money means nothing in a society where skin color speaks louder than words. For all the bigotry Shirley faces down the road, the experience also proves enlighten as he digs deep inside himself and finds roots he never even knew were there. In the end, Tony and Shirley discover they're both equals, regardless of which side of the track they grew up on. The notion that this onscreen friendship was inspired by actual events – with the screenplay being co-written by Tony’s real-life son – only adds to the poignancy.


Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Widows - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 15, 2018 at 5:35 PM


At first glance, “Widows” may seem like a by the numbers heist movie, but there are so many more layers here than its premise suggests. Much like “Gone Girl,” another film scribed by Gillian Flynn, “Widows” demonstrates just how thrilling, well-acted, and even poignant a crime caper can be. Flynn has had quite an impressive year, as she not only collaborated with director SteveMcQueen on this film’s screenplay, but was also heavily involved in HBO’s adaptation of her debut novel, “Sharp Objects.” Not every writer can seamlessly make the transition from the printed page to visual mediums. Flynn has an evident understanding of how these different art forms function, however, mastering every facet of storytelling.


Viola Davis delivers yet another powerhouse performance as Veronica Rawlings, a wealthy woman who turns a blind eye to her husband Harry’s (Liam Neeson) shady business dealings. When Harry is killed in a heist gone wrong, though, she’s given no choice but to get involved. Veronica is confronted by mobster turned politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), whose money was blown up along with Harry. Jamal gives Veronica a small window of time to pay him back $2 million or else he’ll send his enforcer/brother (Daniel Kaluuya) after her. Unable to come up with that kind of money, Veronica uses Harry’s notebook to execute another heist, but requires a crew to pull it off.


With nowhere else to turn, Veronica enlists the other widows whose husbands died alongside Harry. Michelle Rodriguez gives one of her best performances as Linda, a mother struggling to hold onto her business. Elizabeth Debicki continues to shine as one of our most underrated actresses in the role of Alice, who is finally starting to grow a backbone after enduring years of abuse. Veronica is unable to recruit the other widow Amanda (Carrie Coon), who has a newborn baby at home. Thus, the trio plots to steal from Jack (Colin Farrell) and Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), two other shady political figures. Meanwhile, Linda places her children in care of an athletic babysitter named Belle (Cynthia Erivo).


While it’s easy to draw parallels between this film and “Ocean’s 8,” “Widows” shares more in common with “The Town.” In another director’s hands, the film could’ve veered into more popcorn-oriented territory. The always-ambitious Steve McQueen, however, turns in a hard-hitting drama with fast-paced editing, slick cinematography, and an uncompromisingly gritty tone. What’s more, McQueen and company tell a compelling story that starts off fairly straightforward, but slowly unfolds with twists and turns that never come off as forced. This is a film you’ll want to see twice, not only to catch the clever foreshadowing you might’ve missed before, but for the sheer entertainment value as well.


McQueen has never shied away from difficult subjects, such as sex addiction and slavery. While the themes in “Widows” are more understated, the film still manages to make thoughtful commentary on real-world issues that sadly haven’t seen much improvement since 2008. At its core is a story that empowers women without ever feeling like a blatant statement. What’s more, the subtext doesn’t take away from action, mystery, or atmosphere that initially hooked us in. It’s a film that gives the audience what they paid for and then gives them even more.


Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars

The Grinch - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 9, 2018 at 12:50 AM


It’s impossible to talk about Illumination’s “The Grinch” without also discussing the previous adaptations of Dr. Seuss’ cherished children’s book. We can all agree that the animated television special from the legendary Chuck Jones is a perennial classic that’ll never grow old. The live-action Ron Howard movie, on the other hand, has aged about as well as an expired can of Who Hash. As someone who was 10 when the film came out, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a soft spot for it, due in large part to my unconditional love for Jim Carrey. The 2000 film is by no means a faithful interpretation of Seuss’ vision, though. The latest version falls somewhere in between. At times, it captures much of the warmth and charm of the original. Other times, it can feel like a manipulative commercial that came from a store.


We all know the basic plot of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” although this film naturally introduces a few new subplots and characters to reach a feature run time. Like the live-action movie, this version also delves into why the Grinch’s heart is two sizes too small, but the filmmakers thankfully keep the backstory quick and simple. Most of the focus is dedicated to the Grinch assembling his devious plan, often resulting in slapstick reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote. Perhaps that’s fitting since both the Grinch and Looney Tunes have Chuck Jones in common. I addition to his trusty dog Max, the Grinch also enlists a reindeer named Fred, who basically exists just to sell toys, but still gets a few laughs with his roly-poly physique.


As the Grinch, Benedict Cumberbatch strikes a solid balance being both dastardly and likable, although he lacks the gravitas Boris Karloff brought to the role. Ironically, Cumberbatch probably could’ve created something similar had he stuck with his natural English accent. Using his American voice, he sounds like Hugh Laurie as Dr. House. Then again, House was basically a Grinch without the green fur. Being an Illumination production, it’s also hard to watch the Grinch’s evolution from naughty to nice without being reminded of Felonious Gru. Even the Grinch’s iconic theme music sounds an awful lot like the title song from “Despicable Me.”


Weirdly enough, the best part of the film isn’t the Grinch, Max, or Pharrell Williams as the Narrator. (God forbid Illumination ever make a movie without Pharrell’s involvement). The scene-stealer is little Cameron Seely as the Minion-sized Cindy Lou Who. In every other interpretation of “The Grinch,” Cindy has always been a straight-forward nice kid. Here, however, she’s a wild, imaginative, adventurous child, but still possesses a kind heart and wants nothing more than to help her overworked mom (Rashida Jones). There are more layers to her as a character than ever before and she’s the one aspect of the film that’s actually a step up from the other versions.


That being said, there’s really no competition concerning what’s the best “Grinch” adaptation overall. Being based on a picture book that was just over 60 pages long, the 1966 special was perfectly paced at 26 minutes. At 86 minutes, this film doesn’t overstay its welcome per se, but it’s not without drawn-out filler and several gags that come off as out of place. While directors Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney have a better understanding of the source material than Ron Howard, they also miss a few opportunities. Some of the most important lines from the book aren’t even included.


“The Grinch” is a mixed bag delivered by Santa himself. For every shiny new toy there’s an itchy sweater. Even if another adaptation really didn’t need to exist, however, the film does deserve credit where credit’s due. Anyone who appreciates Christmas scenery will enjoy the movie’s vibrant colors and the inventive design of Whosville. While there is a bit too much focus on pop culture references and pop songs, it does take time for some tender, touching moments as well. Considering the target demographic, the film will delight children and their parents will find it cute enough. If you hold “The Grinch” high up on a pedestal, this version probably isn’t going to win you over, but at least you’ll take solace in knowing it’s the second-best adaptation out there.


Grade: 3 out of 5 Stars

The Girl in the Spider's Web - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 9, 2018 at 12:45 AM


Just as we’ve gone through three cinematic incarnations of Spider-Man, Claire Foy is the third actress to portray Lisbeth Salander on the big screen. It’s weird to think that both of these franchises are being released by Sony, which has become a literal spider’s web. What’s even stranger is that Lisbeth and Peter Parker seem to have more than a distributor in common. Lisbeth has essentially gone from master computer hacker to unstoppable vigilante. Not only does she serve up her own brand of justice, but Lisbeth now apparently possesses superhuman strength and reflexes. She can sneak up on someone out of nowhere and then disappear the second their back is turned. Even her car and motorcycle almost look like they were stolen from the Batcave. Plus, at one point her nemesis wears a mask that resembles Screenslaver's from “Incredibles 2.”


The new direction “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” takes isn’t necessarily unwelcome. Compared to the Swedish adaptations of “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest,” this addition to the “Millennium” series at least moves at a faster pace with a slick style. The film’s use of shadows, colors, and angles actually look as if they were inspired by a graphic novel. While it makes for an occasionally fun action thriller, Fede Álvarez’s film can’t compete with the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or its American remake. Where those two films found the ideal balance of gritty realism, gripping mystery, and genuine character dynamics, this one boils down to a basic popcorn flick.


“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” isn’t exactly a sequel to David Fincher’s 2011 film, as the cast has been completely swapped out. At the same time, the film takes place after the events of the initial “Millennium” trilogy. Even if you haven’t been keeping up with this series, though, the story here is self-contained enough for newcomers to follow. Lisbeth once again finds herself wrapped up in a criminal conspiracy, although this one raises the stakes with nuclear weapon codes. The plot only thickens when our heroine’s reunited with her twin sister (Sylvia Hoeks), who loves the color red almost as much as Lisbeth adores black. To get out of this tangled web, Lisbeth enlists the help of a computer programmer (Stephen Merchant), a fellow hacker/NSA agent (LaKeith Stanfield), and of course journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason).


Foy has been on a phenomenal winning streak as of late with her work in “The Crown,” “Unsane,” and “First Man.” She makes for a charismatic, empathetic, and all-around badass Lisbeth who’s easy to root for. That being said, Foy does have the misfortune of following in the footsteps of Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara, who transformed themselves into Lisbeth. Foy may don the same wardrobe and makeup, but the audience is more aware that they’re watching an actress playing a character. Gudnason, meanwhile, feels miscast as Mikael, especially stacked up against the late Michael Nyqvist and Daniel Craig. The age difference between Lisbeth and Mikael always added another layer to their unique relationship, but the two both appear to be roughly in their late 30s here. Where in the other films Mikael acted as a way for the audience to peer into Lisbeth’s soul, he’s now nothing more than a standard love interest who contributes little.


“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is without a doubt a well-crafted movie and the cast turns in solid work for the most part. What the film lacks is a purpose to exist. While its entertaining in parts, we don’t really walk away from the experience with a better understanding of who Lisbeth is. The relationship between Lisbeth and her sister had potential, but even that comes off as rushed and underdeveloped in the end. Lisbeth Salander is bound to go down as one of the 21st century’s best characters, but “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is perhaps her only story worth telling.


Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Boy Erased - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 9, 2018 at 12:45 AM


Watching “Boy Erased,” it often feels as if the audience has slipped into a parallel dimension. One could easily see the film’s disturbing premise playing out in a series like “The Twilight Zone” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Then it hits us that the film isn’t just based on a true story, but also touches upon an issue thousands of people have been affected by. In 2018, you wouldn’t think that we’d need a movie that explains why gay conversion therapy is inhumane. Since we live in a world where the American president is considering eradicating the term “transgender,” though, “Boy Erased” couldn’t be more essential.


Lucas Hedges broke out as one of our most impressive young actors with his Oscar-nominated supporting performance in “Manchester by the Sea.” He’s continued to shine in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Lady Bird,” and “Mid90s” with “Boy Erased” marking his latest acting tour de force. In this adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir, Hedges plays Jared Eamons, a closeted homosexual who comes out to his devoutly Christian parents. Jared’s father, a Baptist pastor played by Russell Crowe, only sees two paths his son can take. He can either attend a conversion camp or shatter all ties with his family. Although Jared’s doctor (Cherry Jones) insists that there’s no “cure” for being gay, he decides to enroll in the program regardless.


Joel Edgerton is one of those actors you might not know by name, but you’ll definitely recognize him from his underappreciated work in films like “Warrior,” “Loving,” and others. In addition to writing and directing “Boy Erased,” he also gives a chilling performance as Victor Sykes, a so-called therapist who believes he can knock the gay out of his patients. Sykes subjects the young adults to physical abuse, most notably in a gut-wrenching scene where he convinces the family of one boy to beat him with the Bible. What’s just as harrowing, however, are the scenes of emotional abuse. Sykes’ hate-filled comments trigger flashbacks of “Full Metal Jackson,” making every moment Jared spends at the program feel like Vietnam. Some of Jared’s friends actually look as if they’ve been in combat, perhaps either because they’re being beaten at home or because they’re inflicting self-harm.

 

Nicole Kidman gives a particularly powerful performance as Jared’s mother, a trophy wife who tries to remain composed at all times. As she begins to see just how much pain Jared is in, though, she must make a choice between standing by her husband’s wishes or doing what’s right for her son. Jared’s father isn’t as open to accepting his son, but the film wisely doesn’t turn him into a villain. Although it’s acknowledged that Jared’s father is indeed a flawed man, we can visibly see just how torn he is between loving his son and wanting to stand by the ideals he’s always lived by. The film doesn’t even really paint religion as an evil institution. Rather, it demonstrates how some people use religion to force their beliefs on others as opposed to applying the Bible’s teachings towards creating a more loving world.


“Boy Erased” is by no means an easy film to get through. In addition to the horrors Jared faces in conversion therapy, it also explores sexual abuse. In one of the most unsettlingly rape scenes of recent memory, we’re reminded that the #MeToo movement doesn’t only apply to female victims. As brutal as the narrative gets, though, we are given an encouraging message: you can’t change someone’s sexual orientation, but you can change how you treat your fellow man.


Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bohemian Rhapsody - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on October 31, 2018 at 7:30 PM


The production behind “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been an uphill battle, enduring almost a decade of delays with much of the talent involved leaving over the years. At one point, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was actually set to star as Freddie Mercury, giving us all “Brüno” flashbacks. The film faced its greatest hurdle yet when Bryan Singer was fired in the midst of shooting, requiring Dexter Fletcher to step in and wrap up the project. Despite not receiving a directing credit due to DGA rules, Fletcher still finished the project in time. After changing so many hands, though, is “Bohemian Rhapsody” a kind of magic or does it bite the dust?


Thankfully, the end result is a joyous celebration of Queen, reminding us why their music remains immortal and why there’s never been a frontman as unique as Freddie Mercury. From a historical viewpoint, there are details you can nitpick about the film’s depiction of Queen. From a storytelling perspective, though, the film more than captures the band’s spirit. Given the larger than life persona Mercury would often personify onstage, a more romanticized tone is perfectly in tune with his life story. At the same time, “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t shy away from Mercuy’s inner demons and closeted lifestyle, as some feared would be the case. What we’re left with is a hugely entertaining biopic that finds just the right balance of the real life and the fantasy.


Rami Malek won a Primetime Emmy for his performance as the socially awkward, subdued Elliot in “Mr. Robot.” As Freddie Mercury, Malek further demonstrates his remarkable acting range, becoming a rock god. It would’ve been easy for Malek to turn a figure as flamboyant as Mercury into a caricature, especially with an enlarged set of false teeth. From the second he storms onto the screen, however, Malek becomes Mercury with all the right moves, from his distinctive accent to his eccentric mannerisms. Granted, he didn’t pull off this illusion alone, as the filmmakers used a combination of Malek’s voice, Mercury’s voice, and sound-alike Marc Martel’s voice for the singing portions. Malek’s delivery is so passionate and spot-on, though, that it never feels like we’re watching a lip sync battle.


While Malek is bound to soak up much of recognition, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is an ensemble piece that does justice to Queen’s three other members. Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joseph Mazzello are all turn in charismatic work as Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon, respectively. You never doubt the family dynamic these four artists share. Egos may clash, but there’s always a feeling of comradery and affection between them, even during their worst moments. Above all else, they’re willing to fight for each other’s creative visions, especially when going up against EMI executive Ray Foster, who refused to release the six-minute-long “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Ironically, Foster is played by Mike Myers, who fought to include the now iconic rock single in “Wayne’s World,” giving it a second life.


The most intriguing relationship in the film is between Mercury and longtime partner Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Mercury’s sexual orientation has been widely discussed over the years, with some claiming he was gay, others believing he was bisexual, and others arguing that he was beyond labels. In any case, one thing the film makes clear is that he had many male sexual partners, including his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) and boyfriend of several years Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker). After finally confronting Mercury about his sexuality, Mary doesn’t dedicate her life to being his beard, but she doesn’t abandon him entirely either. You can sense these two possess a mutual love and respect for one another, despite not being able to satisfy each other emotionally or sexually. It’s the kind of dynamic we rarely see in films about the LGTB community, but it comes off as surprisingly genuine here.


While it’s debatable if Mary Austin was the love of Mercury’s life, she most likely knew him better than anyone else. Of course, as Roger Taylor put it, “In real life nobody knew Freddie.” That being said, it would be impossible for any film to completely embody a figure as enigmatic as Mercury. “Bohemian Rhapsody” does something just as extraordinary, however, making us believe that a fallen music legend has returned, if only for a short period. It accomplishes this through Malek’s transformative performance and a rousing mix of Queen’s greatest hits.


Queen was more than a rock band. They transcended the genre, combining elements of heavy metal, disco, gospel, and more. “Bohemian Rhapsody” in particular is arguably the closest any rock song as come to channeling the likes of Mozart or Beethoven. Likewise, the song’s film counterpart evokes both the fun of attending a rock concert and the spectacle of attending a night at the opera. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the climax of Live Aid performance, which serves as the cinematic equivalent of a mic drop.


Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Suspiria - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on October 31, 2018 at 7:30 PM


“Suspiria” is a film I really don’t want to review. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but that doesn’t mean it’s good either. Some films are so mystifying, ambitious, and straight-up bizarre that it’s hard to say if they’re strokes of genius or self-indulgent messes. On one hand, “Suspiria” is a cinematic experience that’s too indescribable to even review. On the other hand, any film that can be described as indescribable needs to be studied in great depth. And so, here we are.


Now that she’s been freed from Christian’s Grey’s restraints, Dakota Johnson can finally open her talents up to more intriguing roles. In “Suspiria,” she goes from fifty shades of grey to draping herself in fifty shades of red, which is one of the few colors that stands out in an otherwise deliberately bleak film. As Susie Bannion, Johnson plays a naturally gifted young dancer who’s eager to prove herself at the Markos Dance Academy. She quickly catches the eye of dance director Madame Blanc, played by an icy Tilda Swinton. Although you may not realize it while watching, Switon also transforms herself into a male psychotherapist and a grotesque creature that appears towards the finale. Just as Swinton masterfully disguises herself, the dance academy isn’t what it seems either with a coven of witches working behind the scenes.


There are a few things I can say about “Suspiria” without a degree of uncertainty. It’s unnerving, it’s visually arresting, and it has the distinction of being one of the few movies released in 2018 that made me drop my jaw on multiple occasions. Of course, I could say the same thing about Ari Aster’s “Hereditary.” What separates “Suspiria” from that modern horror masterpiece lies in the pacing department. Even at its most understated, “Hereditary” never felt slow or dull. “Suspiria,” meanwhile, lags at 152 minutes with many scenes that feel like unnecessary filler. For a film that prides itself on being surreal and experimental, there’s surprisingly more exposition than needed.


Had “Suspiria” been trimmed down by at least half an hour, it could’ve been one of 2018’s most tightly-plotted thrillers. That being said, at its best, director Luca Guadagnino has made a fiercely creepy thriller that knows how to overwhelm its audience with an uncomfortable sentiment. Not since Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” has a movie so hauntingly integrated dance choreography into a horror story. There’s a particularly sinister possession scene where the audience can practically feel every joint move and every bone break. For many viewers, this is the point that will either have you walking out of the theater or hooking you in for the long haul.

 

This remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic clearly wasn’t designed to appease everyone. For those who enjoy a good detour into insanity, “Suspiria” is a dreamlike art house picture that’ll plague your nightmares. To get to the truly bloodcurdling portions, though, you also have to sit through a lot of drawn-out moments that are simply boring. The film is kind of schizo as it leaves you yawning one minute and your mouth hanging open in shock the next. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, “Suspiria” is a hard film to define, but perhaps the only way to pin it down is to watch it again… or maybe even dedicated an entire film class to it.


Grade: 3 out of 5 Stars

Can You Ever Forgive Me? - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on October 25, 2018 at 1:50 AM


Melissa McCarthy’s career trajectory has been eerily similar to Tom Hank’s. Both started primarily working in television, but eventually broke out on the silver screen with Academy Award nominated comedic performances. Hanks starred in a few less than stellar films following “Big,” such as “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Turner & Hooch.” Of course, he made a huge comeback in 1993 with “Philadelphia,” which redefined him as a more serious actor and even resulted in a Best Actor victory. Likewise, McCarthy has hit a couple rough patches following “Bridesmaids,” such as “Identity Thief,” “The Boss,” and “Life of the Party.” The ironically titled “Can You Forgive Me?” reveals a completely different side of McCarthy and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if her powerhouse performance accumulate to a Best Actress win.


McCarthy plays Lee Israel, whose 2008 memoir provided the basis for this film. Lee is a talented writer who even had a few books published back in the day, but she’s since fallen on hard times. Lee’s agent (Jane Curtin) is unable to get her work due in part to the subject matter she wishes to write about. On top of that, Lee is notoriously impatient, rude, and antisocial, unwilling to play nice in order to get what she wants. Lee’s only friends are her sickly cat and her eccentric drinking buddy Jack Hock, played by Richard E. Grant in a delightful supporting performance. Since Lee and Jack are both gay, there refreshingly isn’t any hint of a romance between them. Lee would like to ask out a timid bookshop owner (Dolly Wells), but her own insecurities get in the way.


Desperate for money, Lee finds that she has a talent for mimicking the voices and writing styles of late celebrities like Fanny Brice. After making a couple hundred bucks for a letter she forged, Lee decides to pursue a new career path as a criminal. At first, Lee fails to see the downside since she’s finally making cold hard cash while also pursuing her passion. Of course, it isn’t long until people begin to question the authenticity of Lee’s letters. Soon enough, the FBI is hot on Lee’s trail, meaning she could face serious jail time.


Through humor and brutal honest, McCarthy brings out the humanity in Lee. Between her criminal activity and all-around unpleasant attitude, this is a person we should despise. Yet, we oddly sympathize with Lee and even relate to her actions. Lee wants nothing more than to make a living off her writing, something any starving artist can identify with. She simply can’t work a room like other writers, though, hence why her name carries no weight. It isn’t until Lee starts signing her work with someone else’s signature that she finally starts to feel respected. Just as every forgery is a fake, however, Lee’s feelings of self-worth stem from an insincere place.


Although McCarthy’s performance is great, the film itself doesn’t quite reach the same heights. For a movie with a lot of buildup, the narrative loses some momentum in its final act where the drama and tension never feel as high as they should be. There’s definitely an interesting story to be told here, but not necessarily a fascinating one, at least when you compare Lee Isreal to an imposter like Frank Abagnale. In many respects, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is the anti-version of “Catch Me if You Can.” There’s nothing romanticized or glamorous about Lee’s portrayal. Given the character’s uncompromising nature, though, perhaps that’s fitting.


Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Mid90s - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on October 25, 2018 at 1:45 AM

 

Somewhere between the mid-2000s and early 2010s, society seemed to develop an obsession with everything retro. Given the economy, political climate, and rise of terrorism, it’s understandable why people want to go back to a simpler time. If we could actually go back to another decade, however, we’d likely find that there’s no such thing as a “simpler time.” The 80s and 90s had their charms for sure, but it’s not like they weren’t without problems. So many modern movies fondly observe the past through a pair of nostalgia goggles. “Mid90s” isn’t afraid to interpret the era through a clear lens, delving into the confusing and brutal parts of growing up while still offering glimpses of hope.


Jonah Hill makes a promising directorial debut with this honest depiction of a 13-year-old boy’s journey through mid-90s life. Sunny Suljic couldn’t be more genuine as Stevie, who’s at the age where he’s starting to lose interest in Ninja Turtles and is more into skateboarding. Funny to think that Suljic was previously seen as a skateboarder in “Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot.” Stevie is tormented at home by his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who beats him up on a regular basis. Their mother (Katherine Waterston) does her best to keep it together, but can sense Stevie growing more and more distant. Trying to figure out who he is, Stevie eventually falls in with a group of older skaters.


Stevie’s friends are mostly played by unknown actors, which adds another layer of authenticity to their performances. Na-kel Smith leads the pack as Ray, who affectionately takes Stevie under his wing. The gang also includes the quiet Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), the jealous Ruben (Gio Galicia), and the reckless F**ks**t (Olan Prenatt). Needless to say, most of their conversations consist of four-letter words, as well as some casual racial and homophobic slurs. The way Hill’s screenplay represents the lingo of the time couldn’t be more spot-on, almost coming off as improvised. What’s more, the delivery is so natural that it never feels like acting, as if we’re really eavesdropping in on a conversation between kids from the grunge era.


With a loose plot, “Mid90s” is basically 84 minutes of Stevie hanging out with his friends and that’s pretty much all we need. Like “Boyhood,” “Moonlight,” and “The Florida Project,” this film is less about telling a flowing story and more about capsulizing a chapter in a young person’s life. Even if you weren’t a skater growing up, chances are you knew kids like Stevie and his friends. We can also understand Stevie’s desire to prove himself, which leads him to make several unwise decisions. What’s refreshing is that none of Stevie’s friends pressure him in a mean-spirted manner. They sincerely care about his well-being and have his back, even if they’re not exactly the best role models.


Hill certainly gets the look of the 90s down, occupying scenes with skateboards, Super Nintendos, and CD players. More importantly, though, he captures the decade at its bleakest, as our protagonist copes with anger, uncertainty, and isolation. Through his friends, however, Stevie finds that he’s not alone and there’s always somebody out there who’s having an even harder time getting by. Of course, these life lessons don’t just apply to kids who survived the mid-90s, demonstrating that some things never change.


Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars

Halloween - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on October 18, 2018 at 8:15 PM


It goes without saying that the original “Halloween” is a magnum opus of horror. Despite clearly being a product of 1978, John Carpenter’s film still holds up phenomenally with its slow-building tension, chilling atmosphere, and daunting antagonist. The sequels are a different story, however. While the other films in this franchise aren’t exactly good, they certainly have an interesting history. Michael Myers was supposed to die for good in “Halloween II,” he was taken out of the equation entirely in “Halloween III,” and made a comeback in “Halloween 4.” Two more disappointing sequels later, “Halloween H2O” retconned everything following the second film and served as the final nail in Michael’s coffin. Of course, seeing how the next film was called “Halloween: Resurrection,” the final nail obviously didn’t stick.


After getting a Rob Zombie reboot, as well as a second “Halloween II,” you’d think another film would be the cinematic equivalent of beating a dead horse. Yet, David Gordon Green’s addition to the series, simply entitled “Halloween,” is a pleasant surprise. It’s hard to say if this is the sequel we’ve always wanted or the sequel we never knew we wanted. After all this time, however, it’s highly satisfying to see a successor that does the original justice, acting as both a homage and a worthy continuation of the story. The film doesn’t surpass its predecessor and likely won’t go down as a game-changer, but it is the most fun and personal “Halloween” sequel to date.


Green and company once again erase much of the muddled continuity, only recognizing the first film as canon. It’s also established upfront that Laurie Strode, once again played by Jamie Lee Curtis, is not related to Michael Myers, once again played by Nick Castle, as well as stuntman James Jude Courtney. Michael has been locked up for forty years, but the emotional scars he imprinted on Laurie that fateful Halloween night never left. Much like a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, Laurie acts as if she’s still in constant danger, unable to leave the war behind. Laurie's paranoia caused her to grow distant from her daughter Karen, played by Judy Greer in an especially effective performance. Karen’s daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) is more sensitive to her grandmother’s condition and wishes to unite her family. As Allyson tries to bring everyone together, Michael prepares to tear them apart as he escapes from incarceration.


It’s never made clear why exactly Michael is drawn to the Strode family, although the mystery surrounding their dynamic only adds to its unsettlingly nature. Michael's creep factor always stemmed from not knowing if he really was the boogeyman or just a freakishly strong psychopath. Either way, he commands the screen here with his overwhelming psyche and nerve-wracking presence. Granted, it’s kind of hard to believe that a man in his early 60s could step on someone’s head and crack open their skull like a Jack-o'-lantern. If you’re willing to give into a little suspension of disbelief, though, you’ll find a well-crafted and even character-driven thriller.


The film likely wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without Curtis. Few performers get to revisit their career-defining role decades later and she doesn’t miss a beat. Curtis evolves Laurie from a likeable, strong-willed heroine to a fiercely complex soul with several different layers as a character. Every actress in the film turns in strong work, making for a slasher flick that embraces female empowerment. Come to think of it, the men here are all pretty idiotic by comparison. The smartest male character by far is a little boy played by Jibrail Nantambu, who realizes that it’s usually better to run from Michael than to try and fight him off.


Green skillfully captures the look and tone of Carpenter’s film while also incorporating a modern element. The standout set piece is a tracking shot that follows Michael through a neighborhood of houses, leaving us overwrought with suspense as we wonder what he’ll do next. The screenplay, which Green co-wrote with Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride, is playfully self-aware, although it never goes into flat-out satire territory. Carpenter even returned to work on the film’s score, which, much like the “Star Wars” theme, never fails to get the blood rushing. It all builds to an electrifying climax that may or may not be Michael’s last stand. In any case, this feels like the right place to end Laurie’s journey, sending her into the night on a high note full of tricks and treats.


Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars


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