‘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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‘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%

‘Beautiful Boy’

beautiful boyQuietly directed by Felix von Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown, The Misfortunates), Beautiful Boy is a humane and deeply moving (true) story of drug addiction and father/son bond.

Timothee Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird) embodies the tragedy of addiction and wasted opportunity as his loving father, Steve Carell (Foxcatcher, The 40 Year-Old Virgin), is forced to dig deep to continue the emotional support so desperately needed.

The support cast is forced to take a back seat in what is essentially a two-hander. And, whilst a cycle of rehab, relapse, recovery results in the emotional impact lessening as the film progresses, the two leads are riveting in their performances.

Rating: 71%

‘Donbass’

donbassRaw and uncompromising, award-winning director Sergey Loznitsa, known for documentaries (Maidan) and social commentary features (A Gentle Creature), draws together a montage of several unrelated stories and events in a war-torn eastern Ukraine.

Moments are disrupted by sudden mortar explosions, armed militia flag down a local bus in search of food, residents are forced to live in squalor in the basement of their apartment block to avoid shelling.

It’s oppressive but sadly all-too-familiar viewing as (Ukrainian) Loznitsa comments on Russian policy in their support of a war in the former Soviet State that’s disrupted the country since 2014. Individual vignettes are powerful but there’s little historical or political context provided to help understand exactly what is unfolding in front of us.

Rating: 51%

‘First Man’

first manIn spite of knowing the outcome of Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and his taut telling of the historic moment teases out every thrill, tension and suspense.

Somber, claustrophobic and with a focus on the men and their families (a controlled, nuanced Ryan Gosling – La La Land, Drive – as Armstrong, a riveting, scene-stealing Claire Foy – Unsane, TV’s The Crown – as his wife, Janet), First Man is intimate and deeply humane. But it is also a technical tour de force, with particular reference to the editing by Tom Cross (La La Land, Whiplash), and a likely swag of behind-the-scenes Oscar nominations.

Rating: 68%

‘American Animals’

American-Animals-movie-posterAward-winning documentary filmmaker Bart Layton (The Imposter) takes on the true story of a daytime heist that goes wrong with mixed results.

Four clean-cut Kentucky university students attempt a multimillion-dollar art theft from their own library led by the incompetent Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk) and Evan Peters (X-Men Apocalypse, Kick-Ass).

It’s a preposterous idea of fantasy and fiction as the bored four make plans, the narrative interspersed with commentaries from the real-life, evidently traumatised, protagonists and parents. Sadly, the film fails to do the story full justice. A slow, ponderous first half is ultimately uninteresting, lacking any gripping immediacy or empathy. It’s the heist that grabs the attention, 20-30 minutes of action and wry, incompetent humour that highlights the dullness of the preceding first hour.

Rating: 56%

‘BlackkKlansman’

blackkkAn extraordinary story of two local detectives, one Black (John David Washington – Monster, Monsters & Men), one Jewish (Adam Driver – Paterson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) infiltrating the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.

Director Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) has not gone uncriticised for his loose adaptation of the true events (‘that story points are fabricated in order to make a Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism’ at the time of Black Lives Matter). But his hybrid period piece/comedy/cop drama with more than a hint of polemic is a hugely entertaining yet angry film that deftly highlights racism within the establishment.

It’s not necessarily an easy-watch – the racist and abusive language, the shocking violence of news footage – but it is an important watch.

Rating: 81%

‘The Rider’

The_Rider-1A tender, poetic story and what is essentially a scripted, heightened documentary as real-life rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau comes to terms with a life-threatening head injury. In a culture that lives and breathes horses, Brady and his family struggle with his displacement and loss of status.

The vast, wide-open South Dakota Badlands adds to Brady’s sense of isolation as writer/director Chloe Zhao (Songs My Brother Taught Me) patiently explores the meaning of masculinity in the physical world of rodeo and its backwater setting.

Rating: 79%

Screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival

‘LBJ’

LBJ_(film)A worthy, slightly dull talkfest of events immediately prior to and following the assassination of John F Kennedy – with a focus on Texan Vice President Lyndon B Johnson.

Forthright and vulgar – and diametrically opposed to a number of Kennedy’s key policies, including the Civil Rights Bill – Johnson nevertheless stepped up to the mark on Kennedy’s death. Some, including Bobby Kennedy (a fresh-faced Michael Stahl-David – Cloverfield, In Your Eyes), believing callously too quickly.

LBJ is an informative biopic of the man who pushed through a great number of landmark social policies but who is ultimately judged as the president who escalated American involvement in Vietnam. But the film very much belongs to Woody Harrelson (The People Versus Larry Flint, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and his vibrant, convincing performance as the man carrying the weight of the free world on his shoulders.

Rating: 56%