‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

In spite of acclaim for her celebrity biographies, the irascible Lee Israel is best known for her fraudulent writing of some 400 letters by dead writers and celebrities to help pay the rent on her New York dive. 

Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) explores the psychology of loneliness as an impoverished and out-of-fashion Israel finds solace in rudeness and alcohol.

As Lee, a nuanced Melissa McCarthy (Spy, Bridesmaids) is a revelation – all bitterness, vulnerability and caustic wit. The chemistry between her and Richard E Grant (Withnail & I, Logan), user, partner-in-crime and drinking buddy, is sublime joy.

Rating: 78%

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‘Roma’

In limited commercial release, Netflix’s Golden Lion winner at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, Roma, is a delectable (black and white) year in the  life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s – with the focus firmly centred on the maid, newcomer Yalitza Aparicio.

Engagingly episodic, the restraint shown by writer/director Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men) results is an achingly beautiful film that unfolds in seemingly real-time. Roma is an evocation of nostalgia and time past – a memoire of (mostly) minor events as adults and children live their everyday.

Already in receipt of numerous awards and nominations for the Golden Globes, Roma is also likely to feature in numerous Oscar categories.

Rating: 87%

‘Call for the Dead’ by John le Carré

One of the greatest spy novelists of all time (some would argue the greatest spy novelist), John le Carré first introduced George Smiley in this 1961 novella.

Call for the Dead is a relatively minor work as a recently divorced Smiley investigates the death of senior civil servant, Samuel Fennan. According to the top brass, suicide is the cause, but Smiley is unconvinced. There’s just too many East German connections sniffing around.

It is the introduction of Smiley – the foil to an overly public, glamorous  James Bond – that makes Call for the Dead an important, of-its-time, read. Short, overweight, balding and wearer of thick lensed glasses, Smiley has, according to his superiors,  “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin.” He is a true career intelligence officer (unlike Bond) but, in 1960 and Call for the Dead, he is working at a menial level, security-clearing civil servants.

It develops into a suspenseful conceit of espionage and deceit, a realism-based thriller that is minor in its narrative and plotting but which, of course, leads le Carré and Smiley into the classics of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

‘Lean on Pete’

Quiet, sensitive, compassionate – director Andrew Haigh’s (45 Years, Weekend) latest is a wistful evocation of displacement and desperation.

A drifting lifestyle (from Wyoming to Portland) according to where contract work for his father is available, 15 year-old Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World, King Jack) has no school and fills his days according to his whims. A chance meet with horse-trainer Steve Buscemi (Fargo, The Death of Stalin) leads to casual work and the befriending of the horse, Lean on Pete.

But when Pete is due to be sold off, Charlie has other ideas. And so begins an unfolding narrative that takes us to the heart of this hard-edged state-of-a-nation  observation with a raw, painfully honest performance from Plummer. 

Rating: 79%

‘A Kid Like Jake’

A Kid Like Jake is an affectionate, poignant story of parents Claire Danes (Stardust, TV’s Homeland) and Jim Parsons (Hidden Figures, TV’s The Big Bang Theory) coming to terms with the fact their son identifies as transgender.

In its dialogue heavy narrative, director Silas Howard’s film betrays its stage play origin – further emphasised by essentially a cast of five plus Jake. Adapted from his own play, Daniel Pearle chooses to focus on the parents and guidance from the Principal at Jake’s school (Olivia Spencer – The Help, Hidden Figures) about difference and diversity rather than the politics of transgender.

The result is sympathetic and humane but a little too light and feel-good fluffy considering the gravity of its subject: a palatable telling to a large audience. But important nevertheless.

Rating : 58%

‘The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme

A novel of extraordinary vitality, of beauty and cruelty, of passion and provocation, Keri Hulme’s debut is set in the harsh, isolated landscape of New Zealand’s South Island. Combining Maori myth and contemporary social attitudes, The Bone Peopleis a soaring yet relentless narrative of three unique characters and their relationship with each other.

A fiercely independent Kerewin, reclusive and virtually self-sufficient in her isolated tower, is an artist running away from her past. Joe is isolated in his recent grief with the sudden death of his wife and young son. And then there is Simon, an autistic child locked into his mute world, unofficially adopted by Joe, having been washed ashore during a terrible storm. Intelligent to the point of precociousness, Simon is a child who tries the patience of a saint: a petty thief with a fierce and almost uncontrollable anger that has landed him in trouble throughout his young life.

A reluctant bond forms between the tough-talking Kerewin and a feral Simon, leading to a gradual breakdown of the barriers she has erected to protect herself from her memories. A reliance evolves, a reliance that eventually encompasses Joe. But there are secrets of violence so shocking and distressing that a wedge pushes this alternative family unit apart.

Complex in its simplicity, The Bone People is, on the one hand, a sincere narrative of a country, a landscape, a culture, of love, death, friendship, abuse, relationships within its everyday. But it’s also a story of myth and fable, a metaphor of change as a European Simon clashes with the traditions of Maori Joe. Part Maori, part ‘Pakeha’ (a white New Zealander), it is Kerewin who represents the future, a hybrid unity of the two cultures.

For all its ambition, heightened sense of grandeur, poetic beauty and visceral, unrelenting violence, The Bone People sadly unravels towards the end as Hulme is seemingly driven by the sense of a utopian ending, a catharsis for all that has come before it and all that will follow. It all becomes a little too laboured and absurd. Which is a pity, as the first two thirds, whilst at times difficult to read, is a haunting narrative with its evocative language and deft storytelling.

Having been rejected by virtually every New Zealand publishing house, Keri Hulme was finally accepted by Spiral, the small feminist publishing house. The Bone People quickly sold its initial 2,000 print run, a pattern that continued and which led to exposure to the UK publishing world and, eventually, the Booker Prize panel. The Bone People was awarded the 1985 Booker Prize, beating such as luminaries as Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and Peter Carey.

‘Shoplifters’

An alternative family unit eking out a living in contemporary Japan through poorly paid contract work, shoplifting and bucking the system. Yet their compassion is such they take in a young girl found outside in the cold of winter.

The Palme d’Or winner at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Shoplifters is a deft, emotionally delicate feature from socially conscious filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (Like Father Like Son, I Wish).

A faultless cast (four adults, two children), a beautifully modulated script and unobtrusive direction allows the narrative to unfold to its devastating conclusion. Shoplifters is a charming gut-wrencher of a film – and one of the year’s best.

Rating: 88%

‘Peterloo’

Award-winning director Mike Leigh (Mr Turner, Happy-Go-Lucky) makes a rare foray into period drama, choosing to focus on the 1819 Peterloo Massacre.

It begins in rhetoric, shifts from a drawn-out history lesson and ends in violence as the government of the day uses the troops against the people, a peaceful 100,000 strong pro-democracy rally in St Peter’s Field, Manchester. The result is the death of 18 demonstrators and hundreds more injured.

It’s an austere canvas, with talk the order of the day, both in the parlours and inns of the reformers and the offices of the ruling classes. But then, on the big day itself, Leigh releases the tight reins of dialogue and produces an immersive panic, claustrophobic in content as the yeomanry and cavalry run amok in the confinements of the rally.

A superb ensemble piece (with Maxine Peake – Funny Cow, The Theory of Everythinga standout ‘everywoman’) that is as current today as 1819 when austere taxation measures and policies were in place to keep power in the hands of the few.

Rating: 67%

‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot’

Left as a quadriplegic following a car accident, alcoholic John Callahan discovers an unknown talent in the art of satirical cartoons.

Raw yet charismatic, Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, The Master) is the perfect fit for the complexities of an angry, cynical, addictive personality shot through with wry humour.

It’s a meandering biopic from director Gus Van Sant (Milk, My Own Private Idaho) from Callanan’s early, heavy drinking days through to finding some kind of personal redemption via support from his AA sponsor, wealthy gay Christian, Jonah Hill (War Dogs, Moneyball). 

Rating: 62%

‘Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist’

Unassuming yet committed, Vivienne Westwood is an icon of rebellion over the last 40 years – and her fashion designs reflect her political leanings.

The face (along with former husband, Malcom McLaren) of 70s London punk, Westwood, at 77, continues to work, collaborating with her husband, Andreas Kronthaler. Along with her activism – climate change, civil rights, environment  – the main concern for Westwood is the integrity of brand: her label has become too big for her to control.

It’s a hotchpotch documentary – strong on the early history of punk and a fascinating insight into contemporary Westwood working closely with Kronthaler and the globally successful business. Sadly, the ‘activist’ aspect receives short shrift in Lorna Tucker’s film – to the point where Vivienne Westwood herself dismissed the film as ‘mediocre’. It’s more than that – but at a run time of only 80 minutes, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, there could have been a great deal more said.

Rating: 60%