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TIFF 2018: Melissa McCarthy Shines in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

Melissa McCarthy finds her best role yet as writer-turned-forger Lee Israel in this tragi-comedy.

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Melissa McCarthy’s greatest strength is her genius for physical comedy, but she’s rarely cast in films that fully show off her talents. More often than not she’s stuck in painfully unfunny movies (often directed by her husband) that play as extended fat jokes and little else. Yet, with Can You Ever Forgive Me? she has found a way to transfer her great physical skills to a role that doesn’t just require her to play the clown. McCarthy inhabits the role of washed-up biographer Lee Israel in a film isn’t really a comedy, but she nonetheless uses her prodigious physical skills so that for once you forget you’re watching Melissa McCarthy on screen.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on Israel’s memoir, written years after her downfall. Once a mildly popular journalist and biographer, Israel’s fortunes took an unfortunate turn after a disastrous unauthorized biography of Estée Lauder. Her addiction to alcohol and testy personality further sunk any chances of returning to prominence.

It’s here that the film begins. McCarthy’s Israel lives in a Manhattan apartment in the early 90s that has seen better days. (You get the feeling that she would consider finding a cheaper place in Brooklyn or Queens to be a personal insult.) Her cat is sick, her apartment is infested with flies, and her agent (Jane Curtin) refuses to take her calls. Israel’s new project is a biography of vaudeville comedian Fanny Brice, a subject no one in publishing is particularly interested in paying for.

It seems for a while that the version of Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? is condemned to be a blank, someone lacking a past or deeper motivation, but the film subtly and gradually develops McCarthy’s character to create a sense of tragedy around her.

After a short, malice-filled appearance at a party thrown by her agent, Israel runs into the constantly inebriated Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) at her regular bar. He’s a perpetual hanger-on who charms his ways into people confidences as well as their wallets.

Melissa McCarthy & Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Hock is the closest thing Israel has to a friend, and her only confidante after the start of her criminal career. While doing research for her doomed biography, Israel uncovers two rare letters hidden away in a book. She steals the letters and sells one to pay for her cat’s treatment, while for the second, more diminutive letter, she appends a postscript written in the author’s style, a witty anecdote that doubles the selling price. Seeing a way to make rent and ease her financial problems, Israel shifts from embellishing to fabricating letters.

It seems for a while that the version of Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? is condemned to be a blank, someone lacking a past or deeper motivation, but the film subtly and gradually develops McCarthy’s character to create a sense of tragedy around her. The screenplay, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, slowly unearths the roots of Israel’s unfulfilled aspirations. Director Marielle Heller and McCarthy often treat Israel’s anti-social tendencies and alcoholism as a source of comedy, but as her story unfolds it turns more tragic than comic. McCarthy reveals a depth that she hasn’t previously shown; it’s easy to watch her in her ratty clothes and slowly deteriorating apartment, and forget that she’s anything but a struggling writer about to throw away her last chance at success.

There’s also a clever metaphor that appears late in the film: Israel’s fly infestation has become untenable, but when the exterminator finally arrives he refuses to spray because of a terrible smell that Israel no longer even notices. She and Hock clean the apartment, which we see has become littered with half-finished food and overflowing cat refuse over the last few months. The state of her apartment mirrors the progress of her own moral decay. Small infractions, barely noticeable at the time, have built up to unsustainable levels, but at such a slow pace that Israel doesn’t even notice until others are drawn to them. Her small forgeries lead to greater lies that she can’t escape from, but by the time she’s stealing letters from archives, Israel has become inured to her transgressions. She doesn’t realize the extent of what she has done until those around her notice.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a clever vehicle for McCarthy to show off the extent of her skills. It’s undoubtedly her best performance, and one of her best films. Hopefully, it’s the start of new directions for her and not just a temporary lark.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 6 – September 16. Visit the official website for more information.

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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TIFF

Tom Hanks Soars in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

TIFF 2019

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Every film about a famous person needs a journalist as a way into their private lives; at least, that’s what the last few years’ worth of biopics might have one believe. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood follows this now-tired convention, but her film is miraculously the rare one that actually benefits from this peek into her subject’s life. She’s created a comforting yet complicated portrait of Fred Rogers that gets at the essence of his unshakable kindness, while also examining how such an unimpeachable figure impacted the lives of others.

Rather than with starting with Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins with burnt-out journalist Lloyd Vogel (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, playing a version of the writer Tom Junod). He’s encountered great success and has a position at Esquire in 1998 — when print is riding high, and the internet hasn’t yet devoured most of the media ecosystem. But his unvarnished and aggressive investigative pieces have made him plenty of enemies, even if they did garner him awards. Looking to help him out, Lloyd’s editor assigns him a 400-word smidgen of a profile of Mr. Rogers (a magnificent Tom Hanks), who is about as far as possible from the kinds of people he usually writes about.

Tom Hanks looks nothing like Mr. Rogers, but he’ll charm even the most cynical in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

After some grumblings, Lloyd dutifully sets up the interview, only to get a call from Rogers himself, who is happy to start talking right over the phone. Once the journalist arrives on set in Pittsburgh, the television host puts the latest episode’s shoot on hold just to greet Lloyd and spend some time getting to know him, even though he’s working on a tight deadline. We don’t actually learn much of the back story about Rogers (viewers looking for that should seek out Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? [2018]), but Hanks has the remarkable ability to give us far more valuable insights into his inner workings.

Though he looks absolutely nothing like Rogers, and barely even sounds like him, Hanks manages to affect the same cadences that made his on-screen delivery so mellifluous. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, presents a version of Mr. Rogers who is delicately and empathetically attuned with everyone around him. He’s a seemingly selfless person who takes more time out of his days for others than anyone could be expected to, and Hanks has a way of asking leading questions that present radically simple ways of living in harmony with those around us. I’m not exactly a movie crier, and even I found myself misting up when Hanks reminded Lloyd (and the audience) just how easy it is to be kind. Rhys’ Lloyd can’t understand this, and is initially convinced that there must be a darker inner-Rogers. However, anyone who has seen the documentary will know that what you saw was what you got with Mr. Rogers.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

This is why the choice to use the journalist angle actually works for It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A more conventional summation of his life from childhood to death would have been trapped by the constancy of Fred Rogers; the whole point of his existence is that he was always good and kind, and never deviated from that script. By focusing on a fictionalized Junod, we get to see how Rogers ingratiated himself into a single person’s life, which is more interesting than a never-ending list of his good deeds.

Hemingway’s style in most of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is fairly dry and reserved, which perfectly captures the aggressively unglamorous nature of Mr. Rogers’ show. She adds in a fun departure from her previous work by creating a fictional framing device that treats the entire film as if it were an extended segment on the TV show. She also borrows the series’ charming miniature neighborhoods, and uses them for all of her establishing shots and transitions. When Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh, we see a little model jet zoom away from New York City as model cars shuffle through traffic. But it’s her ability to coax great performances out of her actors that is her defining strength. Hanks is excellent (as expected), but she even draws a compelling performance from Rhys, who’s stuck playing the movie’s most difficult role. He could easily have been seen as merely a distraction from Mr. Rogers, but (most of the time) his solo scenes still have plenty of depth.

In 2019, a figure like Fred Rogers seems like something we dreamed as a society, rather than a real human being. His focus on forgiveness and understanding seems at odds with the moral certitude that affects certain corners of the internet. The Mr. Rogers of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a memory of simpler times, but also a call to arms to bring back some of his unbridled kindness. It may not seduce the most cynical among us, but it’s worth a try.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 10, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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TIFF

‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood

A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.

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Ford v Ferrari

Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.

When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.

Ford v Ferrari

Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.

Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.

Ford v Ferrari

Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.

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‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Is a Twisting Homage to Classic Detective Films

TIFF 2019

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Motherless Brooklyn

Edward Norton writes, directs, and stars in this meditative and absorbing adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s neo-noir novel.

In 1999, Jonathan Lethem published his fifth novel, Motherless Brooklyn, and went from being an under-read but respected postmodernist with a science-fiction bent to a writer with a growing mainstream audience. The book was an odd choice to suddenly get people’s attention — a tribute to the classic detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but featuring a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, and taking place in the 1990s. But Lethem’s flair for language, along with the novel’s equal portions of humor and sincere longing, made it a striking success. Back in the early 2000s, Edward Norton began developing the film, shortly after making his directorial debut. It took almost 19 years, but miraculously, Norton has made a version of Motherless Brooklyn that’s fun, engaging, and a tribute to classic detective films of the past.

Norton takes the lead as Lionel Essrog, a member of a shady detective agency that mainly takes on cases for organized crime rather than regular citizens. He has worked there for years after being rescued from a brutal Catholic school for orphans by Frank Minna (an asleep-at-the-wheel Bruce Willis), the head of the detective agency and a major contact to underworld figures. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s, as well as a smidgen of obsessive-compulsive disorder. His speech is interrupted at varying times with shards of curse words, nonsense phrases, and plays on words (he says the condition is like having “glass in my brain”). The Maryland-raised Norton isn’t an obvious choice for someone who grew up in the outer boroughs, but he brings dueling amounts of chagrin and decency. These qualities are necessary following his ticks and outbursts, which would seem obnoxious from nearly anyone else.

Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn opens on Lionel surveilling his own boss. Frank is meeting with an unnamed group of men, and he’s having Lionel keep tabs on the meeting so that he can burst in should anything go wrong. Of course, something does go wrong, and Frank is left with a bullet in his belly and no answers to give. In the wake of the shooting, Lionel makes it his personal quest to find out who shot his boss. The twisting plot, which grows exponentially more labyrinthine over time, pulls the burgeoning detective into a tangled web involving New York City’s development. Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a power-hungry figure modeled after Robert Moses, seems to have some connection to Frank, as does Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young assistant to a Jane Jacobs-like figure who opposes everything Randolph stands for.

The convoluted plot will surely turn off some viewers, as did the more gonzo plot of last year’s Under the Silver Lake, but it’s a key component of all noir-inflected mysteries. The core books in the genre were written around WWII through the Cold War, and they illustrated a world gone mad — where the protagonist could never trust the word of another, and there was always more crucial information being hidden than he could ever real. The sense of disorientation that accompanies prime noir novels and films is a feature, not a bug.

Norton loses some of the wonderful strangeness of the novels ‘90s settings by setting it in the ‘50s, but it fits the story well, and some of the New York development details make more sense in mid-century. There are perhaps some tangents that could have been pruned involving various jazz clubs, and Bruce Willis’ phoned-in turn as Lionel’s mentor is an utter shame, robbing the film of some much-needed emotional moments, but Norton’s own performance makes up for many of the shortcomings, and he strikes up a charming rapport with Raw. Motherless Brooklyn can’t come close to topping its source material, but it’s still a lively mystery that might make you wish they still made this kind of detective story.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 11 as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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