Friday, October 26, 2018

Melissa McCarthy Asks 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

 Third time's the charm.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the third Melissa McCarthy film released this year. The previous two, Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders, were painfully unfunny comedies that relied too heavily on McCarthy's charm and comedic chops to save them. But in the true story Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy gets serious, and gives her best and most surprising performance in years. (Yes Melissa, you are forgiven for those previous missteps.)

Set in a 1992 New York City straight out of a Woody Allen film, with lovingly framed shots of the Brooklyn Bridge, snow that is never anything but white, and a classic jazz standards soundtrack, it presents an aesthetic vision of New York that is the stuff of fiction, despite it being based on a true story.

But that's because this is how Lee Israel (McCarthy) envisions her New York; her reality is far grimmer. Fired from a copy editing job for drinking--though really, for just being an asshole--she's desperate for money. Her agent (Jane Curtain, who should be in more movies), refuses to give her a $10k advance on her next book--a biography of vaudevillian Franny Brice--because she knows a book like that isn't worth even a $100 advance.

At one time, Israel had a successful career as a magazine writer and celebrity biographer, penning books about Estee Lauder and Tallulah Bankhead. Her biography of What's My Line? panelist Dorothy Kilgallen was even a New York Times bestseller. But times are changing, and Israel is getting left behind. She's no longer getting paid to do the only thing she knows how to do, her rent is overdue, and her cat is sick.

When opportunity literally falls into her lap, in the form of some typed missives stuffed into a Fanny Brice biography, signed by Brice herself, one can hardly blame her for what she does next: she stuffs the letters into her bag, tries to sell them, and when she's told they'd be more valuable if they had a little more oomph, she adds that oomph herself, and is quickly on a new career path: literary forger, composing letters as witty as the real thing. (She dubs herself a "better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.")

McCarthy's Israel is a definite misanthrope who freely admits she prefers the company of cats to people. She's a heavy drinker and demands respect from people while rarely affording it to others. But as played by McCarthy, you can't help but root for her as her forgeries increase, and her money troubles start to melt away. McCarthy is perfect casting because she's never afraid to look and act ugly, but she has that natural humor that helps the soul of Lee Israel shine through. (She actually was a pretty good Dorothy Parker.)

Ricard E. Grant is also hilarious and haunting as Lee's only friend, Jack Hock, an aging, self-proclaimed queen, who used to run in the same literary circles as Lee, until he drunkenly peed in a coat closet during a fancy soiree. His huge, hungry eyes are like a Keene painting with a hangover, and Lee, who is even poorer in friends than she is in money, allows him to latch on to her.

Director Marielle Heller clearly has a love for interesting faces. Every actor in Can You Ever Forgive Me? has a such a unique and real look, from Dolly Wells as Anna, a bookshop owner Lee develops a crush on, to Anna Deavere Smith as Lee's ex-girlfriend, to, of course, Ben Falcone, McCarthy's real life husband, who has a small role as an unscrupulous book dealer. There's not a generically pretty face in the entire movie, and I loved that, not just because it's refreshing to see, but because it helps this story of a master faker feel even more real.

Friday, October 19, 2018

'Halloween', Trick Or Treat?

I told you! My house isn't on the trick or treat map!!

If your two best friends were murdered as teenagers by a masked killer who had escaped from a mental institution, and you yourself barely made it out of that massacre alive, how do you think you'd fare in life?

There have been six sequels to the original 1978 Halloween. Three of them--Halloween II, Halloween H20, and Halloween Resurrection--also featured final girl Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). But this year's Halloween, coming 40 years after the original, is the first to seriously ponder how much an attack by a knife-wielding maniac can fuck up your life.

Which, sure, isn't exactly an uplifting premise for what's supposed to be fun slasher movie. But director and writer David Gordon Green, and his co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, manage to inject some humor into the sequel, and Jamie Lee Curtis only briefly allows her Laurie to delve into self-pity. For the majority of the film she's a fiercely competent, gun-touting, basket case; the final girl turned vengeful grandma. Curtis steals every scene she's in.

It's been 40 years since the Night He Came Home, and Laurie Strode has weathered a few divorces, and is semi-estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), though still in contact with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). She lives in a tricked-out fortress in the woods outside Haddonfield, Illinois, forever preparing for what she assumes (hopes?) will be the inevitable return of Michael Myers.

This Halloween cleans the slate, erasing all the events and myth-building of the previous sequels, including deleting any relation between Michael and Laurie, ("Wasn't that her brother?" Dave, a friend of Allyson's asks; "No, that was just something people made up," she replies), returning Michael to his mysterious, stunted roots.

Giving Michael Myers some kind of backstory, with ingrained intent, never made him scarier, and it's something the previous sequels and reboots all needlessly did. He's a guy who murdered his actual sister when he was six, and he's remained a stunted, murderous six-year-old ever since. He came home was home. And he chose Laurie and her friends because she was the first girl he saw when he got there. And now? He just wants to pick up where he left off.

That's scary enough.

Director David Gordon Green has had an eclectic career, beginning with lyrical, Terrence Malick-esque dramas like George Washington and All the Real Girls, before moving on to the stoner comedies Pineapple Express and Your Highness. This is his first horror film, and I think his experience with quieter movies serves him well here. While he never mimics original director John Carpenter's fluid, Steadicam cinematography, he does keep his camera blissfully still when its most important, building suspense with longer takes and quiet unease.

He also scatters tension-relieving humor throughout, letting frequent collaborator Danny McBride's comedic voice come through in some very funny offhand exchanges from characters both minor and major. This humor is also important because the message at the heart of the film is pretty bleak, and much more introspective than anything in the previous sequels: Trauma begets trauma, and it can have an affect on families for generations.

Still, this is a Halloween movie, and it knows it has the please the fans, which it does, to a point that some might even call pandering. Along with Jamie Lee Curtis's return, we've got original Michael Myers actor Nick Castle donning the mask for several scenes as The Shape, and a voice cameo from P.J. Soles. Carpenter's famous score is also reprised by the man himself.

New characters also basically mirror those in the original, from an obsessed doctor dubbed "the new Loomis" (Haluk Bilginer), to a babysitting friend (Virginia Gardner), and her wisecracking ward (an absolutely hilarious Jibrail Nantambu). I also appreciated the callbacks to some of the original's minor characters.

If I have one complaint, it's the choice to up the body count and the gore this time around. One of the best things about the original was how once Michael set his sights on his target, he never strayed. It was Laurie and her friends he was after, not any other townspeople, and certainly not any kids. (Dogs on the other hand...) And the violence was relatively bloodless. Gore wasn't the goal, scares were.

Alas, we live in different times,  and even though Michael is now a man in his sixties, he's killin' like a twentysomething, leaving a trail of blood and brain matter in his wake. Luckily, Laurie Strode's no longer fighting like a scared teenager. Welcome the grandma's house, Michael.