by Alan Yudman

Life is crazy. Living in the USA has become a daily exercise in gripping one’s sanity tightly so as not to let go an fall into the abyss of crazy. So a distraction from all the crazy is always welcome. MARY POPPINS RETURNS is the distraction we all need.

Just in case you were not 100% sure, this is not a remake. Rather, it is a continuation of the story. Some 30 years later, Jane and Michael Banks are grown. Jane is a union organizer. Michael is a widower with three small children. And they are about to lose their family home. They know they can get the money together if only they can find the stock certificate their father George left them and use it to pay off a loan Michael had to take out against the house when his wife was dying. Alas, they cannot find it.

Into this desperate situation floats Mary Poppins. She brings her own brand of quirky wisdom to motivate the children and bring hope to the situation.

The story logically follows the original and is pulled off to great effect by director Rob Marshall, screenwriters Marshall, David Magee and John DeLuca. The music by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is fun and fits right into the story. The integration of animation and live action are fantastic and recall the original in all the best ways.

How do you replace Julie Andrews? The answer is you really cannot. But if you have to, Emily Blunt is a fantastic replacement. Yes she can sing. Yes she can dance. Andrew’s Mary was a bit more “sunny” in disposition. Blunt feels a bit more direct and stern. The eternal optimism and the ability to see the best in everyone and everything is there. Blunt is a marvelous actress, so any question about whether she could pull this off should never have been considered. So shut up doubters. Emily is awesome!

I guess chimney sweeps aren’t a thing anymore, so Lin-Manuel Miranda is Jack, a “leery”.. one of the men who turn the gas lamps on and off around London. He steps into the Dick Van Dyke slot very ably. Miranda pops off the screen whenever he appears. His song and dance credentials were honed on Broadway, so this is a natural fit for him. Ben Whishaw as the grown Michael is another great young actor who completely knocks it out of the park. His touch song to his late wife early in the film is moving. He can sing well enough to pull it off and his ability as an actor covers up any other minor deficiencies. Emily Mortimer as the grown-up Jane is also great. She’s bubbly and enthusiastic, hitting all the right notes (even the one time she sings). The three children are just great. Pixie Davies (Anabel), Nathanael Saleh (John) and the adorable Joel Dawson (Georgie) are perfect foils/companions for Mary.

Colin Firth is a decent villain. Meryl Streep has a great, fun scene singing with Mary, Jack and the children. Dick Van Dyke’s appearance is heartwarming (no he doesn’t play Bert). And seeing royalty like Angela Lansbury is a treat.

Sometimes the film feels like it is trying just a bit too hard to mirror the original. But the winning performances and the upbeat music and hopeful story overcome any of those extremely minor criticisms. If you are looking to put a smile on your face and leave the theater with a pep in your step, MARY POPPINS RETURNS is just the spoonful of sugar you need to help the medicine of life go down smoothly (sorry, couldn’t resist just one).



by Alan Yudman

ROMA is piling up the awards by the truckload. Critics love it. And there is an ongoing debate about whether or not you “must” watch it on the big screen to fully appreciate it. There is no doubt Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film is an artistic achievement. And I appreciate its art, but I’m not sure it worked for me as well as it has for others.

The film chronicles a year in the life of a family in Mexico City during a time of political upheaval. It centers on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid for a seemingly well-to-do family. At the beginning the father leaves on a business trip to Ottawa (a convenient lie the mother continues to tell their four children to keep up appearances). Cleo grounds the family by just being there as the stable element while the mother seems to slowly fall apart before putting herself back together. She gets herself pregnant early on and has to turn to the mother for help, who makes sure she gets proper medical care.

All of this happens as a youth revolt swirls around the family (if you don’t know the history, here is a Time Magazine article that can give context). The father of Cleo’s baby is a member of an insurgent movement. Characters talk about the political unrest occurring throughout the country. It’s mostly at the fringes of the family, but sometimes it intrudes as when Cleo and the family’s grandmother go to buy a crib and they have to navigate protesters, then gun-wielding insurgents who descend on the store and shoot some innocent shoppers. There are also seeming random natural disasters. An earthquake (I know, by definition random), a brush fire while they are visiting friends for New Year’s Eve (maybe Christmas, it wasn’t really clear to me). At one point, Cleo goes to confront the father of her baby at a camp where he is training with other young revolutionaries. Leading the training is a man named Professor Zovek who was apparently a real person. He is kind of a combo cult-leader/revolutionary/Jack La Lane. He is really quite odd, but engrossing.

I’m sorry, but maybe I just don’t get it. Just like in any year, things happen.. but they also don’t happen. That’s what life is like. Sometimes it is thrilling, sometimes boring. This was more boring than thrilling. There are compelling moments. I suppose that is the point. But for a movie? I don’t know. I don’t mind movies that are thoughtful, or take time getting to where they want to go. But this movie dances around the edges too much. It never really made me “feel” anything until a couple of scenes near the end.

Since movies are a medium that taps most of an audiences senses, let’s talk about the visual and sound. Man, this is an absolutely gorgeous film. The cinematography (by Cuarón himself) is simply spectacular. The shades of black and white that dance across faces and buildings. The way the smoke rises as the fire is first spotted. The dustiness of the revolutionary training camp. The scene on the beach near the end where Cleo saves two of the children. It is all just gorgeous. And I didn’t see it on the big screen. I watched it on Netflix (yes, it’s streaming there since the company produced the movie), but didn’t feel like I was missing anything. If you watch it at home, watch it on a flatscreen TV not your computer. That, I think, would ruin the movie. The sound design complements the visuals perfectly. It is a technically and artistically beautiful film.

That couldn’t save it for me. I get what it is saying. I understand the story Cuarón is telling. It just didn’t move me like other films did this year. Great movie? Absolutely. Worthy of the praise being heaped on it? Maybe. Some have called ROMA “groundbreaking”. Not for me. It is absolutely worth seeing. But, it’s not the best movie I’ve seen in 2018.



by Alan Yudman

While most movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been wonderfully entertaining, they are missing something. They turn the comic book character into a real life person and as good as Marvel is at doing that, something always feels like it’s missing. No amount of CGI or green screen work can truly capture the feel of a comic book. With SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, problem most definitely solved.

The tone, the look, the characterizations are all perfect. You feel like you dove right into an edition of Spider-Man. But it’s not just the completely fabulous animation. The story is compelling. It is yet another Spider-Man origin story, but it is completely different.

This is not Peter Parker’s origin, it is Miles Morales’ story. How he became the hero. Now, the movie does start with Peter Parker’s story.. but it is more of a quick re-cap, completely with acknowledgment of Spidey’s sometimes dicey film history (complete with a nod to the weird Tobey Maguire strut down a New York City Street in Spider-Man 3). Then that quick re-cap becomes a “thing” as the story evolves. The story… wow. Totally compelling. Miles, like Peter, is a smart kid. He’s at a magnet school in Brooklyn, but he is having trouble fitting in. His police officer father is demanding, but Miles has more of a connection with his Uncle Aaron who has a dicey relationship with his brother. That leads Miles, the graffiti artist to a subway tunnel where he is bitten by the spider that will change his life. It’s hard to describe the web of the plot without the visuals. But it totally works when you watch it. And that’s kinda important in a movie.

Even the villains are acting out of a sense of heart and purpose. Kingpin is trying to get back his dead wife and son by opening a portal to a parallel reality. That event dumps a bunch of Spider-Men into Miles’ timeline. They must team up to stop Kingpin and save the world. But no one thinks Miles is ready, and he must find his own way to use his unique powers to save the day.

The movie has a ton of heart and treads on Pixar’s territory by delivering a message while being fabulously entertaining. In many ways it does it better than a bunch of Pixar movies. The animation and feel draw you into the message without bludgeoning you with it. It is entirely compelling.

And the voice cast.. more WOW! Shameik Moore is fantastic as Miles. If it was just him it would be excellent. But the rest of the cast is a smash hit. Bryan Tyree Henry is Miles’ father. Mahershala Ali is Uncle Aaron. Liev Schreiber is Kingpin. Kathryn Hahn is Doc Ock. Lily Tomlin is Aunt May. And the Spider-Men from the other realities are Hailee Steinfeld, John Mulaney Kimiko Glenn and Jake Johnson. Spider-Man from Miles’ reality is Chris Pine. Johnson’s sad Peter Parker is the version we have needed for all of time. Pine’s is more “heroic”. Johnson’s is real. There is not a bad performance in the bunch. SAG or the Academy needs to acknowledge the talent it takes to do this kind of acting.

The adaptation by Phil Lord is spot on. The direction by Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman could not be better. See it in 3D.. it’s really the only way. The soundtrack.. the score.. there is nothing not great about this.

Here is my wish… that Marvel and DC use this as an example of what this genre of movie can be. Forget the live action version of these movies. With Avengers: Endgame coming next year, it is the perfect time to shift. These comic book characters deserve this treatment. And so do their fans. It is really the only true way to bring these stories to the big screen. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE should be seismic shift for Hollywood. Let’s hope it is. They have great power to do the right thing.. will they take the responsibility and do it? Here’s hoping they do.



by Alan Yudman

Costume dramas are staples of Hollywood, especially during award season. At the end of 2018 we have two to chose from, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS and THE FAVOURITE. I have yet to see MARY, so I cannot speak about that yet. But I imaging those two movies could not be more different. Judging from the trailer, MARY seems quite traditional. There is nothing traditional about THE FAVOURITE other than the costumes.

I would describe THE FAVOURITE as an 18th century political sex comedy. Queen Anne is a sickly, insecure ruler. She is manipulated by Lady Sarah Marlborough who is running the country. But the manipulation isn’t only to achieve power for Lady Sarah. She seems to truly love the Queen. They apparently had been friends long before Anne became Queen. And that friendship became a secret love affair. But into this strange relationship steps Abigail, whose father’s gambling caused the family to lose status and forced her to seek employment as a scullery maid. But as with most characters in this story, she has ulterior motives. Eventually she schemes her way into the Queen’s inner circle and replaces Sarah in the Queen’s life.

That’s the basic outline of the film, but Yorgos Lanthimos takes that and creates a funny, bizarre world. Sex isn’t sexy, it is used as a means to exercise power and in a few instances love. The cinematography is unique in a good way. The colors are spare except for splashes of bright red. The costumes are fantastic, but mostly shades of black and white. The sound mixing is wonderful.. the clicking of heels on wooden floors is almost a character unto itself.

But what makes this movie soar is the three lead actors. Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is vulnerable at first, and grows more powerful as her story progresses. She is never fully authoritarian, but she comes close. People seem to bow to her because of her position, not because of any real fear. Colman transforms physically through the movie. She is never fully healthy, but she is fairly falling apart by the end, which is a nice juxtaposition with her increasing self confidence. I can see why Colman is mentioned as a Best Actress contender. It is a remarkable performance.

Rachel Weisz also evolves from secure and powerful to vulnerable and resigned. Try as she might she cannot out maneuver Abigail. She doesn’t suffer any of the fools in the Queen’s court gladly and in the end that may be her undoing. But she isn’t one dimensional. She really loves Anne and their relationship is at times very sweet and loving.

Emma Stone doesn’t appear to evolve. Her deferential innocence is a masque she puts on to achieve the goal of regaining status and power. Stone’s reputation for playing the ingenue or innocent serves her well here. Because she takes a turn we haven’t seen her play before. And it really shows off her ability. This is a role she needed to grow as an actor, at least in the eyes of the audience. Abigail’s single-minded aspiration drives her and the movie forward. She marries an army officer, which re-establishes her in the court. But it is obviously a marriage of convenience. Oh and Stone’s British accent never slips. It’s quite a performance.

it’s hard to categorize one of Colman, Weisz or Stone as the lead actor. I know Colman received the Golden Globe nomination as the lead and Weisz and Stone as supporting, but that could easily be reshuffled. There are essentially three leads and it is impossible to say one is better than the other.

I cannot end before mentioning rabbits. Queen Anne has 17 rabbits. One for each child she conceived but who died either after birth or in utero. It’s something to use a rabbit, which was historically killed in a pregnancy test, to stand in for a dead child. I don’t think that’s an accident. It just adds to the bizarreness.

This movie could have been much worse, but the performances of Colman, Stone and Weisz should make THE FAVOURITE a favorite for a castle full of Oscar nominations.


the ballad of buster scruggs

by Alan Yudman

Six short movies all set in the Old West, but really THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is about so much more.

This is a Whitman’s Sampler of Coen Brothers movies with stylistic nods to some of their previous films. The quirky characters, the slightly “off” situations that comment on society as a whole. They are all present in this film.

I don’t know how to review this other than to review each film on its own.

The movie begins with the eponymous title of the entire collection. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is first seen riding across the West while singing a cowboy song and explaining his life philosophy to the camera. We come to know he is not really a singer, but an infamous gunslinger. He has a bunch of aliases.. one he is partial to is the San Saba Songbird. But he pulls out a wanted poster that describes him as “The Misanthrope”, which is probably closer to the truth. Buster is an amiable, always smiling character but is deadly with a gun and you figure he’ll always come out on top. But happy endings aren’t the Coen Brothers. Nelson owns the duality of Buster’s character… the goofy singer and the amoral killer. He inhabits both without humanity, but with likability. His brutality is tempered by a sense of humor that mirrors that of FARGO or BARTON FINK.

Next up is NEAR ALGODONES which features James Franco as a bank robber who is thwarted by a teller (Stephen Root) carrying a rifle and armored with various sized pots and pans. This is the shortest of the 6 films and seemed the most easily dismissed. But there is still something going on. There is irony, humor and an acknowledgment of beauty even as death arrives that gives the story heart.

THE MEAL TICKET follows. I found this to be the darkest of the 6 movies. Liam Neeson is an Impresario who carts the limbless Artist (Harry Melling from Harry Potter) through towns around the west. Neeson sets up their mobile stage and the Artist recites Shakespeare, passages from the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address and more, to increasingly smaller audiences. Neeson comes across another act— a chicken that can do math.. The Calculating Capon.. and makes a brutal calculation of his own. Cheaper to carry a chicken around that a human being. So he buys the chicken and gets rid of the Artist. The dialog is spare. Neeson only has a few lines so most of his acting is body language and facial expressions. It is the best thing I have seen him do in years. It is great that he is challenging himself by breaking out of his aging action hero mold. The grim math of Neeson’s predicament seems to weigh on him, but he sees it as the only path.

ALL GOLD CANYON is the most cinematic of the 6. This one features the perfectly cast Tom Waits as a prospector digging in an idyllic canyon— searching for gold. He digs test holes in search of “Mr. Pocket”, the vein of gold that will make him rich. He finds it, and just at that point he is shot in the back by a claim jumper. You fear he’s dead, but he surprises his attacker and winds up on top and walks off with his treasure. This is a visually stunning film. The John Ford-like cinematography, the saturation of color even in he flecks of gold are spectacular. But it’s not just gorgeous. Waits is amazing. He is basically having a conversation with himself or the amorphous Mr. Pocket. And it is impossible to not feel it all in your gut. The film is bookended by shots of animals and fish scurrying away at Waits arrival, then returning when he leaves. Throughout, Waits sings the traditional “Mother Machree”.. it’s haunting beauty the perfect companion for this beautiful film.

Next is the longest film, THE GIRL WHO GOT RATTLED. If you liked the Coens take on TRUE GRIT, then you will love this. Zoe Kazan is Alice Longabaugh who seems to have been dragged on a manifest destiny quest to Oregon by her brother. But he dies of cholera and she is left to fend for herself. She and one of the cowboys who are guiding the wagon train she is traveling in come to an understanding when she realizes she has no money to pay the hand that is handling her wagon. Billy Knapp (the incredible Bill Heck) proposes marriage as a solution and she accepts. But she wanders off searching for her brother’s dog, President Pierce. The older cowboy, Mr. Arthur, leading the train goes after her and before they return to the wagons, they are set upon by Indians. Mr. Arthur tells her that if all looks lost to take her own life. This film goes from optimistic to tragic.. all the while mirroring the tone and language play of True Grit. This felt like the most fully realized of all the stories.

Finally is THE MORTAL REMAINS. This one features five people on a stagecoach headed to Fort Morgan. One is a frenchman (Saul Rubinek doing a ridiculous accient), the wife of a preacher (Tyne Daly), a trapper (Chelcie Ross) and two bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson). This one is all metaphor. At first they appear to really be riding toward a Fort, but the play of light outside the coach, the tone of their conversations and one very telling shot of the driver clue you in that all five seem to be headed for the afterlife. It is a great button on the movie, since all 6 deal with the deadly consequences of decisions made or not made.

Some will have issue with the way Indians are portrayed. They have no personality or story. They are merely instruments of brutal death. It’s a problem and tone deaf, but the Coens don’t seem to be concerned with political correctness.

The gimmick of the movie are the flipping pages of a book that the Coens use to transition between each story. Since this is available on Netflix, I suggest pausing when the book pages show up so you can read them. The writing is fantastic.

The whole thing put together is simply fabulous. Each film looks at mortality in a different way and comes to a similar conclusion. Despite our best efforts, death is coming for us. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is a feast for the eyes, the soul and the mind. That’s what makes this one of the best Coen Brothers movies.


by Alan Yudman

When politics ignores or repudiates the past, it is the arts that must step up and remind people about the truth of that history. As some continue to believe there is no race problem in the United States, it’s important that movies like GET OUT, BLACKKKLANSMAN, MOONLIGHT, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, LOVING and now GREEN BOOK get made and get seen.

The title GREEN BOOK refers to a book or pamphlet that was kind of a guide for African-Americans traveling through the south in the 1960’s so they could avoid running into problems. In this movie it is something given to Viggo Mortensen’s Tony Lip as he is employed to drive Mahershala Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley on a 2-month concert tour of the south.

Tony is a bruiser. He is bouncer of sorts at the famed Copacabana in New York. Dr. Shirley is a world renowned pianist who decides to take his trio to places where he may not be welcome as a black man. Tony is hired because he is reliable, is “muscle” and— as he describes himself— a good bullshitter.

At first Shirley is all affectation and superiority in his interaction with Tony. He sees him as less. Just as America sees him as less than a full man. Shirley believes he must be teacher and mentor to make sure Tony doesn’t embarrass him on the road.

At the same time, Tony is a bigot. Early in the movie he throws out the glasses of two black workers who are repairing the floor in his apartment. He looks uncomfortable while the two workers are being friendly with his wife. His friends and family call black people “eggplant”. That is his world.

In many ways this is a traditionally told story about race and awakening to how the “other half lives”. Director and co-screenwriter Peter Farrelly (yeah, from SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, etc.) chooses a very familiar way to tell the story. GREEN BOOK is a very straight ahead drama with some comedy mixed in to lighten the mood. But the funny parts don’t get in the way or diminish the story. Both Shirley and Tony are vividly drawn characters at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Shirley is all interiors. He plays everything close to the vest and chooses to go along to get along, rather than be ripe for confrontation. Tony is just the opposite. Every slight must be acted upon. No comment should be ignored. He challenges everything and everyone if he feels it is necessary, and it usually is.

None of this works without the immense talents of Mortensen and Ali. Mortensen is a shape shifter. He can add or lose weight, or change his look to fit the role he is playing. For this he must have put on 30 pounds to play the well-fed Tony. He also mastered the Bronx accent and speaking Italian. Those would all be simple tricks if he wasn’t so good at inhabiting a character and finding his core. No matter how tough-talking Tony Lip may be, he’s a caring husband and father. Mortensen allows that humanity to push through.

Ali has a similar talent for owning his character’s core. In this case, Shirley displays affected superiority. But down deep he is insecure and troubled by his loneliness and how he must present himself to be accepted by white America.

GREEN BOOK is a story that must be repeated so we all can be reminded of the way things were, and how far we may still have to go.

UPDATE 12/5/18:

I continue to think about GREEN BOOK because something has been scratching at my brain. I liked the movie a lot (that is probably obvious) but I didn’t LOVE it. And I’ve been trying to figure out why. I have landed on this.. it is too easy to root for the right people. Their dark sides are not fully black, but more shades of gray. Their flaws felt minor to me and that made them seem a bit too fictional for a movie based on a true story. Overcoming those flaws felt too easy… too short a trip. That is the fault of the writers, not the actors who are truly remarkable. They take that slightly flawed screenplay and make it sing. So, see GREEN BOOK. It is important to see it to know the history. But as a film it left me wanting a bit more.



by Alan Yudman

If you are going into WIDOWS thinking it’s a version of the OCEAN’S franchise, you are going to be disappointed. But you also should be pleasantly surprised. While WIDOWS has none of the humorous banter, male bonding or cheeky sexuality of the OCEAN’S movies, it has something much more— stakes and real drama.

The movie begins by cutting back and forth between two scenes— husband and wife, Viola Davis and Liam Neeson waking up in bed and getting ready for the day, and Neeson and his crew pulling off a robbery. Everything goes sideways during the crime and everyone is killed in a shootout with the cops. That’s where the WIDOWS get their name. Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Carrie Coon all lose their husbands (or boyfriends, sometimes it isn’t quite clear, but it’s also not very important). Here’s where the intrigue of the plot really draws you in. There is political intrigue that ties into the heist story. Collin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry are squaring off in a Chicago Alderman race. The seat was held by Farrell’s dad (Robert Duvall) and his dad before him and so on. Henry is some kind of gangster who has a reputation but no criminal record. His brother (Daniel Kaluuya) is his brutal enforcer. Apparently Neeson’s crew was stealing campaign money from Henry. And that’s where I’m going to stop pulling on that thread so I don’t give too much away.

Henry wants his money back and tells Davis to get it. He doesn’t care how. Sell her stuff, sell herself. Her husband took from him and he wants payback. Then we discover Neeson has left Davis a key to a safe deposit box— inside is a book that is basically a diary of all his crimes past, present and future. She sees a way out. Do Neeson’s next job. Take the money and pay Henry back. So she recruits Debicki and Rodriguez to help her. Eventually they recruit Cynthia Erivo to help them fill out the crew. Again, stopping here. You just have to see it yourself.

Steve McQueen has taken this genre to the next level. The heist is merely a framework for the real story about corrupt politicians, Chicago violence and moving on after tragedy and betrayal. He and co-writer Gillian Flynn chose a slow burn. Things are revealed in painstaking fashion. We learn all we need to know about one situation before we are served the next nugget. It is refreshing to be drawn into a heist movie in this way. Most of the time we know what the motivation is immediately, then the rest of the movie is about the planning and execution. That’s not what is going on here.

McQueen’s direction is stellar. Davis is scared and in pain, and depending on the positioning of the camera and setting of the scene we are either let in or kept at a distance, depending on the demands of the story.

There are strong performances all around. Davis is on the edge and you feel it in the way she runs the crew, yet seems completely untethered at the same time. Debicki and Rodriguez are great, but Debiicki is stellar. Her turn from abused girlfriend/wife to powerful woman is remarkable. Farrell as a corrupt politician trying to escape his father’s corrupt shadow does great work and is it never a pleasure to see Duvall? I think the answer is no. Erivo is also a wonder. And Kaluuya displays a true gift for playing a brutal, menacing villain. SAG should nominate this film for best ensemble. And it probably should win.

The score by Hans Zimmer is perfect and the soundtrack fits every seen (doesn’t hurt that Nina Simone is included). Special kudos to the sound design team also.

There are some backstories that go unexplained and you may wonder what some of those are. But it really does nothing to diminish the intrigue. That is a very minor complaint.

WIDOWS is a great action movie, but it is so much more than that. The story, the acting, the satisfyingly twisty plot all combine to make this film a must see.


can you ever forgive me

by Alan Yudman

People, well critics if you consider them people, always seem a bit surprised when an actor known chiefly for comedy takes on a dramatic role and kills it. There is a worn out quote that goes, depending on who you hear it from, “dying is easy, comedy is hard”. Given that Melissa McCarthy is such a wonderful comedic actor, is it any surprise she is so good in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Not to me.

McCarthy’s stock in trade so far has been her over the top physicality. There’s none of that in her straight dramatic portrayal of disgraced author Lee Israel. Israel had some success as a biographer, but as this movie opens she has hit bottom. She has writers block, she isn’t making any money, she has been fired from her copy editing job. It looks beyond grim as she shambles around early 1990’s New York City. Add to that she is the dictionary definition of a misanthrope. She hates people and makes no secret of it. Israel is a totally unsympathetic character. She is “working” on a biography of Fanny Bryce, doing research in a library when she comes across a typed letter, signed by the comedian. She takes it to a rare bookstore and discovers that it is worth hundreds of dollars to collectors. That is the spark that launches her career of forgery and fraud. Israel writes letters from famous dead authors and playwrights like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, signs them and sells them. It is a lucrative scam, until she is found out.

At her lowest point she meets Jack Hock (the amazing Richard E. Grant) in a gay bar. The two are fast friends mainly because they are both alcoholic social outcasts. They are drinking buddies, bonded by their social status.. which is none. Eventually she drags Jack into her fraud when she can no longer show her face in these bookstores.

Israel seems to be constantly teetering on the edge of being caught, until she finally is found out. Her motivations are desperation and revenge.. revenge against a society and culture that has disposed of her because of her lack of success and because she is a lesbian. Her belief that she is entitled to more and her complete desperation are the gasoline on the fire that are her crimes.

McCarthy is simply wonderful. Israel’s cynicism is powered by McCarthy’s comedic instincts. Her performance has the timing of a comedy without the jokes. It is a wonderful example of her range and potential as a dramatic actress. The part isn’t really the type that gets the attention of Oscar voters. Maybe it should, because this is an awards caliber performance. There are other fine performances. Jane Curtin as Israel’s agent. Dolly Wells as a shy bookstore owner who has a crush on Israel. But the other shining performance here is Richard E. Grant’s turn as Jack. He’s cheeky and funny. He tries hard to be Lee’s friend but cannot set aside his basest impulses. There have been a lot of good supporting performances this year, but this is the best I have seen thus far.

The script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty was adapted from Israel’s book about this period of her life. It is spare and sharp. It’s witty without being too precious. Great writing. This is director Marielle Heller’s second feather (2015’s THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL was her first). Heller’s best attribute here is that her direction isn’t in the way. It’s not noticeable. She picks the right shots to show Israel’s desperation. It’s subtly great.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME has nothing to apologize for. This is a great movie that should be recognized during awards season.


bohemian rhapsody

by Alan Yudman

I walked out of BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY on a high. Like the high you have after seeing a great concert. The performer energized the crowd and you leave feeling giddy and singing the songs. I was enthusiastic and ready to be effusive with praise.

Then after a while I remembered it wasn’t a concert, it was a movie. And that’s when I started jotting down my notes (a peek inside my reviewing process) and realized the film has a few problems.

There is no doubt at all that Bryan Singer captures the energy and glorious weirdness of Freddy Mercury. And that is completely because of a tour de force performance by Rami Malek. He crawls inside Freddy Mercury and disappears into the role. Malek captures not only the flamboyance and the artistic vision, he also gives us the insecurity, doubt and loneliness. Mercury was complicated. His public persona was outrageous and bravura. But in private he was tortured and tormented. Mercury wanted the rock and roll lifestyle, the fame and the fortune. But he came from immigrant parents who just wanted to blend in and do good. He was confused about his own sexuality, loving his longtime friend Mary Austin, but tempted by men. Malek gives it all to the audience. The strutting performer and the insecure man-child are given the same weight. This is a performance that should get Malek an Oscar nomination, if not the gold statue itself. Wouldn’t Freddy have loved that.

The rest of the cast is very good. They found three actors to play Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) who seemed to be nearly doubles for the other members of Queen. Lucy Boynton captures the conflict and longing Mary must have felt being the love of Freddy’s life. Allen Leech (Tom Branson from Downton Abbey) is wonderful as Paul Prenter, Freddy’s longtime partner and band manager (or assistant manager, it’s not clear) who is a manipulative prick. The always great Tom Hollander and Aidan Gillen play the band’s lawyer and manager (again, not clear).

It really is the acting that elevates BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. The story is compelling, but the telling has several problems. The movie races through the band’s early years until they get to the making of A NIght at the Opera. Then it slows down to show the making of that record and the fight with the record company over the first single’s release. There is a scene where they meet with a record company executive who doesn’t want to release the 6 minute opus, Bohemian Rhapsody, as the first single. That executive is played by Mike Myers, so when he trashes the song it got a bunch of laughs in the theater (because he played Wayne in Wayne’s World which lionizes the song). But it is a stunt and it takes you out of the scene. And Myers’ beard is some weird, glued on-looking mess. Singer decides to use on screen text to tell us where and when we are, but that only points out the time warp jumps through the band’s history.

About that history. Man did they take license with the facts. Rolling Stone fact checks the movie and there’s a bunch of problems. Click the link to see just some. I also found one they didn’t mention. On the band’s first tour of the United States, the movie shows Queen playing Fat Bottomed Girls. I know that was on the 1978 album Jazz, because that’s the first Queen album I ever bought. I was willing to accept they may have played a version of the song before 1975. But checking Wikipedia Fat Bottomed Girls wasn’t performed until after Jazz was released. That took me out of the movie too.

Singer and screenwriter Anthony McCarten do a great job weaving the themes of the music in with the story. They also seem to get the band dynamic right.. the love, the tension, the arguing. I heard before seeing it that Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis was “straight-washed”. I don’t think that’s the case. It’s dealt with, but it’s not really the focus of the movie. Though you see how his behavior lead to what you know will be his eventual diagnosis. The movie builds to Queen’s historic performance at 1985’s Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium. I saw it then and I’ve seen it on YouTube since. Malek nails it. It is note for note perfect.

If you are looking for a historical telling of Queen, well this isn’t that movie. This is more of a biopic about Freddy Mercury and using the band as a framework to tell his compelling and tragic story. For that, the music, and Malek’s groundbreaking performance BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is worth every dollar you pay to see it.