Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

I should admit upfront that I was hesitant to give this movie a fair chance. I missed Can You Ever Forgive Me? in its initial run because I was unsure that it was anything more than Oscar Bait. An Oscar Season actor’s showcase for a once-goofy-now-serious comedian in a tonally muted biopic will never be the kind of thing I rush out to see. The talent on-hand in this particular case was too substantial to fully ignore, however, as the comedian in question is the consistently compelling Melissa McCarthy and the director behind her Marielle Heller, whose previous feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl might just be one of the best dramas of the decade. I don’t believe my initial misgivings about Can You Ever Forgive Me? were entirely inaccurate. The film’s subdued real-life subject, its predilection for montage & voiceover narration, and its relentless mood-setting jazzy score all feel like they belong to the exact kind of well-behaved, awards-seeking picture that I actively avoid. I also only got a second chance to see it in a proper theater because of those awards; after being nominated for two acting-category Oscars (and a third for Best Screenplay) it returned for a second theatrical run in New Orleans to profit off the buzz. Make no mistake: Can You Ever Forgive Me? carries the exact look, feel, and prestige you’d expect from an Oscar Season biopic featuring a comic performer acting against type. What’s wonderful, then, is how Heller & McCarthy (along with fellow subversives Richard E. Grant & Nicole Holofcener) use that structure to deliver something much more tonally & thematically challenging than it initially appears.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is dressed up like a prestige biopic, but only in the way that a mean drunk can temporarily disguise themselves as a functional, friendly human being in short social bursts before their true colors start to show. McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, a once-successful literary biographer who turns to a life of petty crime once she finds herself near-homeless, unable to successfully pitch any new projects to her publisher. Her particular talent of getting into the heads (and voices) of her literary biography subjects comes in handy when she begins to forge personal letters in their name to sell to collectors – faking correspondence with important historical artists like Dorothy Parker, Fanny Brice, and Noel Coward for minor sums of cash. The payoffs are relatively small for a grift that lands her under investigation by the FBI, but Israel seemingly has no other means to survive, as she lives precariously without a social safety net. In a lesser film, that sense of isolation & financial doom would be blamed on some social ill or systemic pitfall that failed her. Here, it’s because Lee Israel is an asshole. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is most impressive as a balancing act of admiring & sympathizing with a character while not letting them off the hook for being a drunk & an obstinate dick. Lee Israel and her only partner in crime (a fellow poverty-line drunkard played by Richard E. Grant) live by a strict “Fuck ‘em” policy when dealing with the rest of the world, an attitude that isolates them in ways that are both dangerous to their well-being & difficult for wide-audience sensibilities. It also makes for a much more relatable, satisfying picture than what was sold in its earliest ads.

The secret success of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is that it passes itself off as a well-behaved biopic, but it’s not a biopic at all. While the film does follow a somewhat notable historical figure around a long-gone 1990s NYC, it’s less a biography of Israel’s life than it is a dual character study of two very particular, very difficult people. Crude, drunk, queer, mean, proudly unemployable, and living in squalor, Israel and her sole co-conspirator have a hostile relationship with their fellow New Yorkers (and the universe at large). McCarthy plays Israel with aggressive skepticism & a permanent scowl, deathly afraid of showing a single glimpse of emotional vulnerability or sincerity. For his part, Grant goes full Quentin Crisp as her cohort, ruthlessly squeezing every cheap hedonistic thrill out of life as he can, treating his limited time on Earth as a frivolous lark. Even if you don’t see you own personal flaws & hurt reflected in these characters, it’s easy to recognize them as kindred spirits; the shithole world we live in doesn’t deserve any more sympathy or respect than they’re already giving it. Marielle Heller’s greatest achievement in this film is in inhabiting Israel’s voice & POV, the same way the infamous forger inhabited the voices of the literary figures whose graves she robbed. No matter how prickly or destructive Israel can be in the film, we never lose sight of the fact that the world let her down first, that life is a bum deal that doesn’t deserve a single ounce of effort whether or not she’s willing to give it. Whether she’s furiously railing against the fragile egos & unearned confidence of straight white men or enjoying a brief glimmer of peace in an upscale drag bar, we feel her anger, her pain, and her displacement in a world that does not want her. You cannot fake that kind of authenticity in spiritual kinship, even if Heller, McCarthy, and Holofcener are speaking for Israel, even if the vessel that contains her forged voice carries the inauthenticity of an Awards Season melodrama.

-Brandon Ledet

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Night is Short, Walk on Girl (2018)

My mental library of anime titles is embarrassingly shallow; if it’s not Miyazaki or Akira, I likely haven’t heard of it. As someone who cherishes the artistry of hand-drawn, traditional animation, however, I’m often a huge sucker for the stray titles from the medium I’ve seen (I was even mildly positive on the egregious Your Name.-knockoff Fireworks from earlier this year, at least as a novelty). Since the animation artistry itself is often what I’m typically drawn to in these works, it’s the freewheeling, psychedelic end of the anime spectrum that most attracts me – titles like Paprika & FLCL that indulge in dream logic sequences of fantastical mayhem simply because it looks cool. That disposition makes me the perfect audience for Masaaki Yuasa’s latest feature film, Night is Short, Walk on Girl. Surely, anime & manga die-hards familiar with the film’s source material (an eponymous novel & a television show titled Tatami Galaxy) will have a much richer contextual experience with Night is Short than I, but as a previously uninitiated appreciator of psychedelic visual indulgences, I still had a total ease in enjoying the film as a stylistic exercise isolated from extratextual concerns. A plot-light immersion in visual excess & tonal drunkenness, Night is Short is wonderful as an exhibition of the virtues of traditional animation, a chaotic night of unhinged fun that requires very little familiarity with its medium to enjoy on a purely aesthetic level.

The POV of Night is Short, Walk on Girl is split between two unnamed characters: a teen girl brazenly entering “the adult world” through a wild night of drinking & a slightly older boy who’s following her from a close distance in a hapless effort to woo her through stalking. Of course, the film is most fun when seen through the girl’s perspective, but their adventures are evenly weighted & equally absurd. “The night that felt like a year” stretches on endlessly ahead of them as they plow through cocktail bars, open-air used book markets, porno auctions, strangers’ parties, and guerilla theatre happenings all over the city of Kyoto. Time is explained to move much slower for young folks (interpreted literally in the ticking of wristwatches), so their single night of missed connections stretches on for an impossible temporal bacchanal. Besides the way youth distorts our perception of time, the film also contrasts different age ranges’ philosophies on interconnectivity. Older late-night drunks feel isolated, prone to despair, while the titular girl is so bursting with life & feelings of interconnectedness with the people of Kyoto that she sees cocktails across the city only as precious jewels to be collected as flowers bloom in the air around her. When asked “How much do you drink?” she defiantly responds, “As much as is in front of me,” spending her entire night binging on the simple, immediate joys of life while oblivious to the lovelorn boy with eyes only for her.

If I have one regret about seeing Night is Short on the big screen, it’s that I didn’t have the option to watch it dubbed. I realize that tarnishes my anime credibility more than anything else, but in a film that’s most notable for its visual achievements it would have been nice to not have been distracted by the subtitles while taking in the artistry. For all the film’s vague philosophy about youth, interconnectivity, and the passage of time, its plot mostly amounts to a frantic night of drunken, incoherent yelling. It only really comes alive as an achievement in narrative storytelling in the 15min stretch when it mutates into a full-blown musical. Otherwise, it’s the film’s poetic, freeform animation style that commands the tones & rhythms of each sequence—shifting from storybook illustration to erotic printmaking to Powerpuff Girls-style retro cutouts to whatever the mood dictates as the moment blooms. I was reminded of the recent restoration of Yellow Submarine while watching it in the theater, if not only for both films’ willingness to exploit their shared medium for the full spectrum of absurd, anti-logic indulgences it allows, whereas most modern animation feels dispiritingly restrained & unimaginative. I can’t say with any authority whether Night is Short is an especially remarkable achievement as anime, but I can say with certainty that in our modern era of CG animation doldrums, it’s an invigorating, intoxicating elixir.

-Brandon Ledet