In Theaters

Creativity is a wonderful thing. It gives us great satisfaction, and it can lead to the production of marvelous conceptions made manifest. It offers boundless opportunities for exploration and expression, adding constantly to the richness of human experience. But is it always benevolent and uplifting, or can it be contorted into questionable forms that get out of hand? That’s a fine line to traverse, but sometimes we may step over it and find ourselves on the wrong side of the creative process. Such an experience befell a struggling author, as depicted in the intriguing new biopic, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (web site, trailer).

In 1991, writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) was going through hard times. The talented author and journalist, a biography specialist who managed to land one of her titles on The New York Times best seller list, had fallen out of favor with readers, publishers and her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin). Despite a loyal but small fan following, no one was buying her books, and she was having trouble making ends meet, let alone finding success in securing new publishing deals. In fact, in a tense meeting with Marjorie, the no-nonsense agent strongly encouraged her client to look for a new way to make a living.

Of course, Israel did little to help her own cause. While she was quick to point out the quality of her work and her past accomplishments, she nevertheless refused to engage in most of the activities, such as media appearances, that authors were increasingly being called upon to do in promoting their work. It also didn’t help that she was often known for being surly, sloppy and drunk much of the time. Those qualities affected not only her professional life, but her personal life as well. She had few friends, her best pal being her elderly cat, Jersey (Towne the cat). She lived a rather lonely life on her own, having separated from her partner, Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith), in a Manhattan apartment in dire need of a good cleaning.

Down-and-out author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) devises an ingenious scheme to support herself by forging the literary letters of famous writers in director Marielle Heller’s new biopic, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Photo by Mary Cybulski © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Given these circumstances, Israel’s prospects for the future looked bleak. Her back was against the wall financially, conditions made worse by being months behind in her rent and having to figure out a way to cover vet bills for an aging and ailing feline. She was desperate to turn things around.

In spite of publishers turning their backs on her, Israel nevertheless continued to work on her latest writing project, a biography of Vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice (1891-1951), hoping that someone might eventually be interested in picking it up. While conducting research, she came upon a personal note written by the performer that had been stuck inside a library book. Believing that it might have some value, she decided to swipe it in hopes that she could sell it for some quick cash.

Not long thereafter, Israel approached a book shop owner (Dolly Wells), who confirmed that the letter indeed had worth. In fact, Israel was surprised to learn that there was a sizable collectors’ market for the literary letters of famous authors and artists, especially for items with good content. That revelation gave the starving writer an idea: Why not embellish or even create forgeries of those letters and sell them to eager memorabilia brokers? Suddenly, Israel had a new way to make a living, doctoring the works of such luminaries as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker.

With drinking buddy and occasional partner in crime Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, right), author and literary forger Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy, left) toasts to the success of their new fraudulent venture in the intriguing biopic, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Photo by Mary Cybulski © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Needless to say, discretion is vital when perpetrating a fraud such as this, so Israel kept mum about her new venture, confiding only in her new drinking buddy – and occasional partner in crime – Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). The polished would-be man about town helped fence some of her wares when the heat began to get turned up, and he came up with some clever schemes of his own. But he also proved to be unreliable – and untrustworthy. And, as some collectors began to question the authenticity of their purchases, Israel came under increasing scrutiny from several brokers (Ben Falcone, Stephen Spinella), especially when they were questioned by federal agents. The noose was tightening, as investigators began closing in. She was clearly beginning to feel what it means to be a criminal.

Lee’s odyssey is, to say the least, a colorful and creative one. Indeed, one can’t help but admire her ingenuity in attempting to get herself out of a gigantic pickle. One might even say that, as seen in another recently released biopic, “The Old Man & the Gun”, she’s sort of an endearing criminal folk hero. However, a life of crime is hardly laudable, no matter what the circumstances, and sanctioning it is anything but noble. So one can’t help but ask, why did she have to resort to it in the first place?

As becomes apparent from her circumstances, Israel was desperate for a solution. And desperate people, as we all know, often resort to desperate measures to seek resolution. All of which naturally begs the question, how did matters become so desperate to begin with?

Struggling author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy, left) receives harsh, plainspoken advice about the unlikely future of her career from her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin, right), in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Photo by Mary Cybulski © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

At the risk of sounding unduly judgmental, it would be easy to say that the author was her own worst enemy, that her plight was one of her own making. Her boorish attitude, lazy ways, impolite demeanor and constant imbibing didn’t lend themselves to a successful career or a happy home life. Instead, they produced miserable outcomes, unrelenting despair and a persistent need to scramble to stay afloat personally, professionally and financially.

Fortunately, being the creative type that she was, Lee came up with a “solution” that reflected her temperament, character and sensibilities. Her scheme to forge and market phony literary letters was brilliant in its own way, and it drew heavily upon her existing talents. She was eminently detailed in her approach, too, right down to matching the typeface fonts in the typewriters she chose to write her subjects’ alleged correspondence. She became so proficient at what she did that, for a while, it seemed as though there was nothing she couldn’t get away with.

However, that eye for detail, that scrupulous intent to be “authentic,” is what ultimately got her in trouble. Despite her many personality flaws, in her early days as a successful writer and journalist, Israel believed strongly in being faithful to the quality of her work, including the integrity associated with it. And even though she believed in her later years that her needs justified whatever illicit actions she took, that longstanding notion about integrity couldn’t help but creep in. This had the effect of rendering her fallible, resulting in an unwitting form of self-sabotage, one aimed at giving expression to that strive for personal authenticity, the death knell for a perpetrator seeking to get away with crimes such as hers.

One might wonder, how could she undercut herself when everything with her plan seemed to be going so well? In some ways, this self-sabotaging manifestation is akin to a “tell” that a bluffing poker player may unknowingly reveal when trying to con his or her fellow gamesters. The truth of the deception bubbles to the surface in some identifiable way, making the ruse vulnerable to exposure, no matter how well the deceiver may try to cover the underlying intent. In the end, one’s true intents ultimately will out.

Neophyte criminal Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy, right) scams an unsuspecting bookstore owner (Dolly Wells, left) into buying a phony literary letter in a scheme to help alleviate her financial problems in the engaging new biopic, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Photo by Mary Cybulski © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Ironically, despite the many troubles Israel underwent with her scheme, in her own way she found the experience enjoyable. Having had the opportunity to impersonate the writers she so admired – and to effectively convince others that her writing was on par with those literary icons – gave her great fulfillment. It was as if she had a chance to contribute to what she saw as a body of work built on the foundations of great writing, something that she truly appreciated and that, regrettably, was beginning to grow ever scarcer in light of emerging changes taking place in the publishing industry. It was so satisfying, in fact, that she described the experience as the best time of her life. No matter how strange or warped that may sound to some of us, there’s something to be said for it in its own unusual way. Such meaningful personal fulfillment is an aspiration to which we should all strive for in our creative endeavors, regardless of what they are (though larceny is probably not recommended).

As biopics go, director Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is about as good as they get. This engaging, smartly written tale serves up a banquet of laughs and tears with a dash of inspired criminality, all wrapped up in an intelligent cinematic package. McCarthy delivers a stellar performance as the literary scoundrel, demonstrating that there’s more to her range than what she’s shown in her many comic turns and taking a front and center position among leading contenders for awards season honors. Similar accolades are due to Grant as the protagonist’s flamboyant scallywag accomplice, potentially another honoree waiting to happen. But perhaps the film’s most praiseworthy attribute is the screenplay co-written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, the former having distinguished herself yet again here, just as she did in the recently released character study, “The Land of Steady Habits”. It’s heartening to see a picture that truly appreciates the value of great writing, both in its subject matter and in the vehicle that brings its story to the screen. To that end, it’s gratifying that a contemporary release refuses to dumb itself down to appeal to the lowest common denominator. This offering shines in so many respects and genuinely deserves whatever honors it receives.

As Lee Israel came to discover, creativity can be a dual-edged sword, one that can articulately dissect or blatantly dismember whatever it’s used for. It can cut with surgical precision or slash with reckless abandon. But whatever happens, the outcome depends on who is wielding the implement and how he or she does so. There’s a tremendously powerful tool at work here, and we should take care to handle it judiciously if we hope to keep control over it – and not lose any of our fingers in the process. 

A complete review is available by clicking here.

A Lesson in Self-Acceptance

Coming to terms with who we are is sometimes a difficult process. If we’re significantly unlike those around us, we may feel uncomfortable about our differences and seek to fit in as best we can, hoping that our distinctions are downplayed or go unnoticed. But how long can we keep a lid on a pot like that, especially when the contents begin to boil? In fact, should we even try to do so? Maybe that’s a sign to accept ourselves for who we are and live the life we were meant to live, a challenge brought to the fore in the unusual new Swedish offering, “Border” (“Gräns”) (web site, trailer).

If you’re ever looking to catch someone trying to illegally smuggle something into your country, call on Tina (Eva Melander). The Swedish customs inspector has a nose for sniffing out anything the least bit illegal – literally. Through her keen sense of smell, she can spot anybody bringing in contraband, from illegal stashes of liquor to items of a more dubious nature. And she’s right every time.

So how does this unconventional sleuth do it? She says she can “smell” the guilt, shame and regret on the people who pass by her inspection station. It’s admittedly an unusual talent, but then there are many things about Tina that are far from normal. Her rather homely looks, coupled with her soft-spoken, person-of-few-words demeanor, set her apart from virtually everyone around her.

Outside of work, Tina’s life is mundane personified. She lives in a small house in the woods with her somewhat distant partner, Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), a show dog trainer who spends most of his time watching TV when not attending to the canines. She also dutifully pays regular visits to her aging father (Sten Ljunggren), who has been confined to an assisted living facility for patients suffering from memory issues. But otherwise she leads a fairly boring existence, her only real diversion being taking long walks through the surrounding forest, where she seems to have a remarkable affinity for communicating with the woodlands animals.

However, before long, the tedium abates when Tina’s life takes several unexpected dramatic turns. During one of her passenger interrogations, she identifies a culprit trying to smuggle in a computer disk containing images of child pornography. Officials are so impressed with her remarkable abilities to spot the target that they ask her to join their investigation to find others involved in this heinous crime ring.

But, if that development weren’t dramatic enough, Tina experiences something even more unusual when she encounters Vore (Eero Milonoff), a passenger who bears an uncannily striking resemblance to her. She believes that he, too, is concealing some kind of secret, even though he makes no obvious attempt at hiding anything; in fact, his strangely friendly attitude almost seems to invite scrutiny. A thorough search of Vore’s belongings turns up nothing, suggesting that Tina may be wrong, perhaps for the first time in her career. However, convinced that something is still amiss, Tina asks a male co-worker to conduct a strip search of the passenger. This investigation indeed confirms Tina’s suspicions that Vore is not what he appears to be, though the revelation involves nothing of a criminal nature. The mysterious traveler, it seems, is a hermaphrodite.

Customs agent Tina (Eva Melander, right) has a nose – literally – for sniffing out questionable incoming passengers, like Vore (Eero Milonoff, left), in the unusual new Swedish release, “Border” (“Gräns”). Photo courtesy of Neon.

Embarrassed and ashamed at her uncalled-for persistence, Tina sheepishly informs Vore that he/she can file a formal complaint about her conduct. Much to her surprise, however, Vore tells her not to worry, that he won’t press any charges. In fact, as the two converse further, they get to know one another personally, a dialogue that opens up an unusual bond between them with implications that extend beyond the customs office. In no time, they begin spending considerable time together, and Vore even rents the guest house on Tina’s property.

As Tina and Vore get to know one another, it’s obvious that these individuals are even more unusual than what was initially apparent. What’s more, they develop a relationship that’s anything but conventional. To say more would reveal too much about the plot, but suffice it to say that they’re off on an adventure together that’s full of wonder, strangeness and self-discovery. It’s one that also ties in many additional elements, including that aforementioned police investigation, Tina’s father and Roland’s distance, something that’s not entirely of his own doing.

Surprisingly, this strange little film has a lot to say on a lot of topics, most notably what it means to be oneself and comfortable in one’s own skin. The quest for self-acceptance is something we all strive for at some point in our lives, and it’s an odyssey that can be made all the more challenging when we possess traits that set us apart from the bulk of society. It’s a struggle that Tina wrestles with here, as she seeks to come to terms with who she is, perhaps for the first time in her life. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding, and it certainly helps to have someone like Vore along for the journey to help show her the ropes, no matter how unconventional they might be.

After a bumpy start, customs agent Tina (Eva Melander, right) and mysterious traveler Vore (Eero Milonoff, left) develop an unusual relationship in the unconventional new Swedish release, “Border” (“Gräns”). Photo courtesy of Neon.

“Border” is one of the best efforts at fusing multiple cinematic genres that I’ve ever seen. It’s part crime drama, part fantasy, part horror flick, part offbeat love story and part noir thriller with a dose of Norse mythology all rolled into one sumptuously filmed, deliciously unusual offering. This one will take you places you don’t expect at seemingly every turn, holding your interest intently, because you’re never sure where it’s going to go next. Director Ali Abbasi serves up a sometimes-funny, sometimes-twisted, sometimes-sweet tale that keeps viewers guessing right up to the closing credits. The changes in mood definitely keep you on your toes, but in the end it’s well worth it. This film won the Un Certain Regard award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s Sweden’s official entry for the best foreign language film at the upcoming Oscars.

No matter how much we may try to deny ourselves – either willfully or out of ignorance – at some point our true beings will surface. The transition may be difficult, and finding our footing may be challenging. But ultimately there’s no substitute for authenticity and our acceptance of it, especially when it comes to ourselves. Just ask Tina.

A complete review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Movies, Movies, Movies!

The Good Media Network, host Frankie Picasso and I are pleased to announce that the Frankiesense & More podcast is now available on a number of new listening sites, including Spotify, Google, Alexa, iTunes and Stitcher! With more options than ever, you now have a choice of where to hear our latest and greatest.

And, if you’re a big movie fan, that includes reviews of a number of new releases. With that said, be sure to check out the podcast of our October film selections, including “Love, Gilda,” “A Star Is Born,” “Venom,” “Await Further Instructions,” “The Old Man & the Gun,” “Beautiful Boy” and “First Man.” The podcast also includes a wrap-up of the Chicago International Film Festival, with reviews of “An Acceptable Loss,” “The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia,” “Neurotic Quest for Serenity,” “Styx” and “The Trouble with You.” It’s a jam-packed hour with lots of movie news and information!

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.