Movie reviews: 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' the best-ever feel-good movie about loneliness
Film critic and pop culture historian Richard Crouse shares his take on six movies opening in cinemas across Canada this weekend: Melissa McCarthy's dramatic turn in "Can You Ever Forgive me?," tough and tender family drama "What They Had," unique hostage romance "Bel Canto," Gerard Butler's waterlogged thriller "Hunter Killer," the cautionary tale "Room For Rent," and the Tom Volf musical documentary "Maria By Callas."
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?: 4 STARS
In "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" Melissa McCarthy leaves behind the broad comedic portrayals that made her famous in favour of a character that puts realism ahead of the funny.
Based on a true story, McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a once successful writer with dozens of magazine profiles and even a best-selling biography on her resumé. Her seventies and eighties heyday gives way to a change of fortune in the early nineties. After a book on cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder failed to grab the attention of the reading public, the bottom falls out of her writing career.
"No one is going to pay for Lee Israel right now," says her agent (Jane Curtain) says. "I suggest you find another way to make a living."
Broke and desperate, she finds an old letter from vaudeville star Fanny Brice and it changes her life for better and for worse. She sells the letter for big money and launches a second career forging and selling literary correspondence by celebrities including the likes of Noel Coward, Katherine Hepburn and Dorothy Parker.
"I'm a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker," she says.
The letters serve two purposes in Lee's life. They give her an outlet for her writing and the sales fill her bank account. "I have figured out how to pay the bills without shovelling s**t," she says. With some help from her shady friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), all goes well, or at least as well as anything in the troubled woman's life could go, until the FBI start sniffing around.
We've seen McCarthy play desperate before, but we've never seen her quite like this. There are familiar shades in the performance, the quick temper and the lashing out, for instance, but the difference is that here she's playing a character, not a caricature. As Israel she adds notes to the character. She is both vulnerable and vicious, sardonic and self-doubting. We know she can do comedy, but with this nicely nuanced work we now know she can deliver the dramatic goods.
As the flamboyant Jack, Lee's only friend and partner in crime, Grant is equal parts smarm and charm. He's the kind of outrageous character who says things like, "Maybe she didn't die. Maybe she moved to the suburbs — I always confused the two," and spends what little money he has on getting his teeth bleached. He has a faded elegance about him that is both heartbreaking and hilarious.
"Can You Ever Forgive Me?" wraps up just a bit too conveniently, making it the best feel-good movie about loneliness and despondency ever made.
WHAT THEY HAD: 3 ½ STARS
Tough and tender, "What They Had" is a story of Alzheimer's and dysfunction that never dips into the easy sentimentality of many other family dramas.
Writer-director Elizabeth Chomko begins the story with Ruth (Blythe Danner), in a dementia daze, dressed in a nightgown, getting out of bed and walking off into a blizzard. The disappearance is short-lived but serious enough for Ruth's daughter Bridget (Hilary Swank) and granddaughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) to fly to Chicago from California to be at her side.
Son Nick (Michael Shannon) thinks it is time to put Ruth in a home where she can be looked after, but Burt (Robert Forster), her husband of decades, wants her to stay home where he can look after her. Caught between Nick and Burt, Bridget believes her mother should be put in a memory care facility called Reminisce Neighborhood, but is torn in the best way to make it happen.
The synopsis does "What They Had" no favours. It sounds like a downer, an earnest movie of the week style story of bickering siblings up against a stubborn patriarch. But it is more than that. There is pain, anger and heartbreak but there is also humour. Shannon's outbursts, born of frustration and a certain amount of realism, are often amusing and always hit exactly the right notes.
There are strong performances across the board — Swank, Forster and Farmiga all feel completely authentic — but the film's beating heart is Danner, who plays Ruth as though she's wearing a shroud of sadness at her fleeting memory.
"What They Said" occasionally feels cluttered, as though the focus is spread to widely over all the characters, but its unflinching eye for detail is a strength not a minus.
BEL CANTO: 2 STARS
"Bel Canto," based on Ann Patchett's best-selling novel about the "Lima Crisis at the Japanese embassy in the Peruvian capital in 1996, is a hostage drama that is also about the power of music to bridge all gaps. It's also a thriller and a love story. It's a lot of things that never quite gel into one whole.
The story begins with a South American concert in honour of a Japanese industrialist (Ken Watanabe) by opera singer Roxanne Coss (Julianne Moore). As arias and coloratura passages fill the air a group of guerrilla rebels burst in, take everyone hostage and demand their comrades be let out of prison in return for the release of the high falutin' captives.
Negotiations drag on for over a month, confining the kidnappers and the kidnapped inside a luxury mansion. Soon bonds are forged, romances bloom — a translator (Ryo Kase) begins a clandestine affair with a terrorist (María Mercedes Coroy) — as differences are set aside and commonalities — a love of music, soccer and humanity — are unearthed.
The Stockholm Syndrome of "Bel Canto" is about as convincing as Julianne Moore lip syncing to opera singer Renée Fleming's beautiful vocals. Splitting the focus of the story between the ensemble gives everyone something to do but never convincingly comes together as one story. I'm sure director Paul Weitz (half of the brother team, with Chris Weitz, who made "American Pie" and "About a Boy") hoped the story would have political and socioeconomic resonances but it plays more like a soap opera, flitting from scene to scene with an ever-increasing sense of melodrama.
HUNTER KILLER: 1 ½ STARS
If there was ever more proof need to put Pablo Picasso's remark, "good artists borrow, great artists steal," to bed it's the new Gerard Butler film. "Hunter Killer" borrows and outright steals elements from any number of movies, "The Hunt for Red October" chief among them, but is neither good nor great.
"Hunter Killer" takes place on land, on sea and on the phone. Based on the 2012 novel "Firing Point" by Don Keith and George Wallace, "Hunter Killer" sees Butler as an unconventional U.S. submarine Commander Joe Glass. He's on a mission to find and rescue a missing U.S. sub when he stumbles across a popular 1990s plot twist — a Russian coup that threatens to demolish world order.
Stealthily cruising through enemy waters he becomes part of a three-pronged mission to rescue the Russian president being held hostage in Russia by rogue Defence Minister Dmitri Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy). At sea level are Navy Seals led by Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens), National Security Agency analyst Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini), Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common), and, back home in America, Admiral Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman in post-Oscar paycheque mode) who barks orders at minions and into phones. It's American-Russian collusion that could change the course of history!
Throw in a craggy-faced Russian submarine captain, Sergei Andropov (the late Michael Nyqvist) — we're not enemies, we're brothers — and you have a run-of-the-mill World War III scenario that was better the first few times we saw it.
"It's not about your side or my side," Glass says to Andropov, "it's about the future."
"Hunter Killer" is so cheesy it should come with a side of saltines. Much of the dialogue sounds cribbed from the "Tough Guy ‘R Us" manual circa 1986 — "He's gonna play the hand he was dealt!" — spoken by characters so wooden they could easily double as buoys in the above water scenes.
At almost two hours "Hunter Killer" is a waterlogged thriller, a sopping wet excuse for Butler to grunt his way through another film that is beneath his talent.
ROOM FOR RENT: 3 STARS
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you won the lottery? Mitch Baldwin's (Mark Little) didn't have to. He won the Mega Max Lotto as a high school senior. "Room for Rent" is his story, a cautionary tale about the high cost of having and losing money.
US$3.5 million is a lot of money. The kind of money that seems like it will last forever. But, as Mitch learned, when you spend like a drunken sailor it only lasts about twelve years. Forced to move back in with his parents Warren and Betty (Mark McKinney and Stephnie Weir) he is humiliated; a guy who had it all and blew it. Even worse, his father wants to retire and insists Mitch starts to pay his fair share. Unwilling to get a job Mitch decides to move to the garage and rent out his bedroom.
The first person to show up is Carl Lemay (Brett Gelman). He's a smooth talker with a pocket full of cash, willing to pay several months in advance. Aggressively friendly, he soon ingratiates himself into Warren and Betty's lives and gives Mitch life advice. Things get weird around the house when some of Carl's stories turn out to be lies. "I will grind you down into a tiny little knob of a person," Carl tells Mitch as hostilities rise.
"Room for Rent" is a light-hearted dark comedy about the consequences of frittering away a fortune. Carl is a character, but he's also a metaphor of Mitch's comeuppance. Gelman plays Carl for all he is worth. He's mysterious, obnoxious and the catalyst for a story that gets weirder and weirder as it threatens to turn into a horror movie. Writer-director Matthew Atkinson finds a happy mix between the humour and the domestic horror, creating a film that is as fun as it is unique.
MARIA BY CALLAS: 3 STARS
Maria Callas died forty-one years ago, but "Maria By Callas," a new documentary from Tom Volf, allows the story of one of the best-known vocalists in classical music to be told in her own words.
"Maria By Callas" is not a typical music doc. Volf, who has authored several books on the singer, forgoes the usual biographical timeline, instead focussing on more speculative interests regarding fame and her relationship to public life. Pushed on stage by her mother — "Destiny forced me into this career," she says — she lived in the glare of the spotlight, both on stage and off.
Apart from her voice, her fame was the thing that defined her. The press, who delighted in reporting on the dramatic aspects of her life, couldn't get enough of her and documented her every move, including a relationship with shipping magnate Ari Onassis. Volf spends time on this, probably the most sensational tabloid exposé offered by the film, allowing her to comment on it via contemporary television print interviews and recently found letters (read by Joyce DiDonato).
The interviews aren't particularly revealing. Callas, or La Divina as fans knew her, talks about wanting to have a normal life, as a wife and mother, but it feels like lip service rather than insight.
Volf pieces the story together using a collection of rare footage, unseen photographs, personal Super 8 films and live recordings. It is the latter that gives the movie its spark. "Music is the "only language I really know," Callas says, and it is through the long, uninterrupted performance pieces that we truly her voice, both her bel canto technique and inner voice. Her stage work reveals her passion, natural stage presence and her mastery of the music. These sequences are more enlightening than any of the spoken material.
"Maria By Callas" will likely appeal to opera lovers more than casual viewers, but nonetheless provides an interesting portrait of a person who is still one of classical music's best-selling vocalists decades after her death. "If one really tries to listen to me seriously," she says of her singing, "one will find all of myself in there."
Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.