Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive MeThe trials of women authors are laid bare this season in several movies (The Wife, Colette), never more amusingly and heart-breakingly than in director Marielle Heller’s honest comedy-drama, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on Lee Israel’s autobiography (trailer).

Melissa McCarthy is perfect as Lee Israel, a middle-ranking author of celebrity biographies in 1970s and 1980s New York, settling down into the ranks of the unpublishable. Lee can’t get her next project going—an unpromising, probably unsaleable biography of Fanny Brice. Her agent (Jane Curtin) won’t take her calls, her prickly personality has alienated any people who might have helped her, she’s behind in her rent and reduced to stealing a winter coat, and her cat is sick. Life is tough and so is she.

By chance, Lee stumbles upon a couple of original letters by Brice and sells them to the kind of antiquarian book dealers who trade in such collectibles. She soon learns bland doesn’t sell. What makes notables’ correspondence valuable is the personal touch, a bit of wit. She’s a writer; she can do this. And does.

Into her insular life arrives a comet of a man. Jack Hock, played with manic relish by Richard E. Grant, is Lee’s polar opposite. Gregarious and most probably homeless, he becomes her companion (the word “friend” would be tricky here), her drinking buddy, then her partner in crime.

The filmmakers initially saw Julianne Moore in the role of Lee, but they were so fortunate in casting McCarthy. Says Monica Castillo on RogerEbert.com, “The range in McCarthy’s performance cannot be overstated. At almost every turn, her character gives the audience plenty of reason not to like her. Yet, with Heller’s sympathetic approach and McCarthy’s acting, the movie humanizes her beyond caricature,” and Israel is presented with tremendous empathy and understanding.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences: 86%.

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*****Lost Empress

Football, leaves

guvo59, creative commons license

By Sergio de la Pava – Does anyone these days have the time to read a 640-page novel? I made the time and was glad of it! This remarkable book came to me as a reviewer for crimefictionlover.com, and it bucks convention in more ways than its length.

In all those pages, a lot happens—interesting, challenging stuff you won’t find in a typical novel. It includes a meditation on Time, an evisceration of professional football, a hilarious take-down of the U.S. health care system, an exploration of the meaning of loneliness and the futility of religion. Fundamentally, however, it’s a kaleidoscopic, postmodern approach to the question “what is justice?” All the while, Sergio de la Pava’s sly sense of humor keeps the pages turning, as situations at first merely odd spiral out of control like a poorly judged forward pass.

Characters are described with juicy details that make their stories tantalizing, and as the story settles down, two principal characters emerge. The first is Nina Gill, former co-owner and brains behind the wildly successful Dallas Cowboys. Family maneuvering gives her a football team of her own—not the Cowboys, the decidedly non-competitive Paterson (N.J.) Pork.

Nina is a woman who gets what she wants, and what she mostly wants is a winning football team. The NFL players are in a lockout, the owners have cancelled the season, and gutsy Nina recruits men desperate to play. Her second-in-command is college student Dia Nouveau, and the laugh-out-loud banter between tough Nina and can-do Dia is like the script for a screwball comedy, sometimes even written in script format.

Nuno DeAngelis is a career lawbreaker headed to Rikers Island. Nuno is a philosopher. “They can put him in Rikers, but they can’t make him live there.” The story of his life in prison, how he gets out and back in again, is written in what you might call a suprarealistic style, not as gritty crime drama, but floating somewhere above reality. But, since he’s there, his various connections give him assignments: avenge a vehicular homicide, snatch a Salvador Dali painting Nina wants . . . you know, the usual prison malarkey. Nuno writes his own brief for his Grand Jury proceeding, and it’s both expletive-laced and morally persuasive.

Trying to give a sense of the plot of a novel this sprawling is probably irrelevant. De la Pava has created a three-ring circus involving clowns, daredevils, and high-wire performers, creating extraordinary characters from people engaged in seemingly ordinary activities—a 911 call transcriber, a man caring for his ailing mother, a parking garage operator, a priest in a dwindling parish, and a failed doctor who becomes the Paterson Pork mascot.

De la Pava’s first novel, 2008’s A Naked Singularity, was originally self-published, but when the University of Chicago Press discovered and republished it in 2012, it received the PEN/Bingham Prize for best debut novel of the year. His is a refreshing and unforgettable voice, one that busts out of the boxes of both crime and literary fiction, stretching the form and the reader as well.

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Charley’s Aunt

Charley's Aunt

Seamus Mulcahy as “Charley’s Aunt” in an unguarded moment; photo, Jerry Dalia

Charley’s Aunt, the 1892 farce that ran almost 1,500 performances in London’s West End is remounted by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in a sparkling, fast-paced production directed by Joseph Discher that opened October 27 and runs through November 18.

As the play opens, St. Olde’s College student Jack Chesney (played by Aaron McDaniel) is in his campus rooms, fretting over the draft of a letter to a young lady. He can’t get the news of his attachment quite right, and her family is decamping to Scotland on the morrow. He’s soon joined by his pal Charles Wykeham (Isaac Hickox-Young), suffering similar writer’s block over his letter to another young lady in the soon-to-depart group.

Charley, an orphan, is further flustered by information that his wealthy aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez will be arriving mid-day to meet him. Though she’s paid for his education from her home in far-off Brazil (“where the nuts come from”), they’ve never met. Jack soon concocts a plan to invite their lady-loves to luncheon in his rooms to meet Charley’s aunt, who can provide a suitable chaperonage. But how to get rid of her when they want privacy? Jack hits on the stratagem of adding their amusing friend Lord Fancourt Babberly—“Babbs” (Seamus Mulcahy) to the party. He can entertain the old lady, surely.

Babbs arrives and mentions he’s taken up amateur theatricals and is about to play an elderly lady in some production. (At this point, the direction of the plot is clear, which doesn’t subtract a bit from the enjoyment!) The costume is produced, Babbs dons it, and almost simultaneous with the arrival of the young ladies is a note saying Donna Lucia’s plans have changed and she cannot arrive for several days.

Poor Babbs is finagled into pretending to be the aunt and the fun is in full sway. More people join the luncheon party—Jack’s father, Colonel Sir Frances Chesney (David Andrew MacDonald) and the father and guardian of the young ladies, Stephen Spettigue (John Ahlin), both of whom have an eye on the fetching (and wealthy) Donna Lucia.

Although the story starts a bit slowly, once the plot gets rolling, there’s no stopping it. When Charley’s aunt—the real Donna Lucia (Erika Rolfsrud)—arrives after all, sizes up the situation, and keeps her true identity secret in order to torment poor Babbs, the catastrophes multiply.

The cast has a great deal of fun with the physical comedy and sight gags, including the three delightful ingenues: Emiley Kiser, Erica Knight, and Sally Kingsford. By maintaining his dignity regardless of the outrages he witnesses, Peter Simon Hilton’s Butler is a perfect comic foil.

Ultimately, the real success of the production rests on the shoulders of Seamus Mulcahy. His Babbs—mugging, fleeing, angry, amorous—is a treat from beginning to end and well earned the enthusiastic standing ovation he and the cast received.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

On the Big Screen

Looking for a weekend movie? If I had it to do over, out of these three, I’d pick First Man.

The Wife

Beautifully acted by Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, and directed by Björn Runge, the movie is based on the book by Meg Wolitzer, who wrote the screenplay with Jane Anderson (trailer). For me, there was an unreality to the story’s central conceit that (in this day and age) a woman uses her writing talent to prop up her Nobel prize-winning and serially unfaithful husband for forty years. I ended up mad at her.

What I liked best? The smarmy performance of Christian Slater, determined to get a tell-all biography out of it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 85%; audiences: 80%.

Colette is another movie in theaters now about a woman writer whose husband takes credit for her work and about a lot else too, judging by the previews. I’m not a Keira Knightley fan. But Dominic West as her husband . . . that’s tempting!

First Man

The biopic of Neil Armstrong was directed by Damien Chazelle (trailer), with a screenplay by Josh Singer and James R. Hansen, who wrote Armstrong’s biography. Ryan Gosling does a fine job as the buttoned-up Armstrong, who can keep it together even when he’s on the verge of bouncing off the atmosphere into the void of space in the hair-raising opening sequence. And it’s fun to see Claire Foy as an American housewife rather than The Queen.

I liked the evocation of the 1960s throughout and those times, which, in retrospect seem simpler, but of course weren’t. The early days of the space program were a time of heroes, even though Chazelle doesn’t overdo it. Ignore the complaints that he doesn’t show the flag-raising ceremony on the moon. Chazelle wisely opted for a scene that would be meaningful to the very private Armstrong, not a rah-rah “we’re number one” ego-stroke for the country.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 88%; audiences: 64%.

The Old Man & the Gun

An aging Robert Redford portrays Forrest Tucker, a “gentleman bank robber,” who capped his career of prison escapes with an audacious escape from San Quentin at age 70. Written and directed by David Lowery (trailer), the screenplay also had help from David Grann, author of a 2003 New Yorker article about Tucker.

Sissy Spacek is a cautious but interested late-in-life romantic partner, and Casey Affleck plays a dogged police detective who follows Tucker’s career of robberies and won’t give up the case to overbearing FBI agents. I also liked his robbery team, Danny Glover and Tom Waits. It’s a pleasantly diverting entertainment, and you can safely wait for Blu-Ray.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 90%; audiences: 62%.

Read the Book?
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Juliet, Naked

Juliet, Naked Predictably, I overheard a moviegoer say to the ticket-seller, “I’d like to see Juliet, Naked.” You should see it too (trailer)! Nick Hornby’s novel has been turned into a highly entertaining romantic comedy directed by Jesse Peretz. The strong script is by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins.

The story starts with an awkward website video, in which Duncan (played to hilarious effect by Chris O’Dowd) rattles on about obscure American rocker Tucker Crowe, who has not been seen in decades, much less produced any new music. Duncan lives with Annie (the delectable Rose Byrne), who runs a small museum in a seaside British town. The museum’s biggest attraction is a shark’s eyeball, bobbing in formaldehyde.

To the dismay of  megafan Duncan, Annie doesn’t especially appreciate Tucker Crowe, nor how his music has taken over their listening and the mystery of his disappearance their conversation. Like anyone obsessed with in a very small slice of life’s enormous pizza, Duncan is tedious in the extreme. (Juliet, Naked is an album title, I think.)

When Annie posts a few of her less flattering thoughts about Tucker Crowe on Duncan’s website, Crowe himself (Ethan Hawke) responds. To her surprise, he agrees with her, and they begin a secret trans-Atlantic email correspondence. The two have great charm together, playing off each other and admitting their shortcomings. They’re neither one perfect and able to admit it.

Crowe is living in the center of the United States, somewhere, in a garage lent him by his ex-wife, and taking part-time care of their young son Jackson (Azhy Robertson). We soon learn another woman is the mother of his grown daughter, who’s now pregnant, and he has twin boys by yet another. He’s barely in touch with these children and totally out of touch with the daughter of his first love, Juliet.

Perhaps it’s the pseudo-anonymity of email that encourages him to speak to Annie. When he has a trip to London, the face-to-face is awkward. It might be the beginning of a relationship, but there are a lot of kids and partners in the way.

What I loved about this movie, in addition to the fine acting, is that the situation avoids the typical Hollywood relationship clichés (which the movie Puzzle fell prey to, disappointingly), and strives for honesty.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 80%; audiences: 90%.

P.S. I love the crazy job titles that turn up in movie credits. In this one: “Petty cash buyer.”

Puzzle

Puzzle, Kelly McDonald, Irrfan KhanWhile you can’t fault the acting in this new Marc Turtletaub rom-com, written by Oren Moverman, it contains few surprises (trailer). All the typical Hollywood assumptions about relations between men and women are on display, along with filmmakers’ strange notions about how ordinary people in relationships or financial turmoil actually behave.

Agnes (played by Kelly Macdonald), has been married a couple of decades to Louie (David Denman), who owns an auto repair shop, and they have two sons, the unhappy Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and his younger brother Gabe (Austin Abrams), who’s planning to go to college and is in love. Agnes isn’t happy and she isn’t unhappy; she’s in a disappointed stasis.

They live in one of the Connecticut suburbs of New York—Bridgeport, I think. They don’t travel, not even into the city. (It’s a cinch she doesn’t have a passport, the significance of which I won’t explain.) If they have a vacation, they go to their cottage on the lake. The adults’ attitudes about sex-roles predate the Eisenhower Administration—as does Agnes’s wardrobe—though they are only in their forties now. In short, the premise seems dated. Not that there aren’t still people with old-fashioned ideas and lives, but we’ve seen that movie.

Agnes is aware that, while she engages in an endless round of housekeeping, meal preparation, and church lady functions, life is passing her by. A poignant moment occurs early when she decorates the house for a birthday party, serves the food and cleans up, and brings out the huge chocolate-frosted cake she’s made so people can sing happy birthday—to her. The only pastime she truly enjoys is working jigsaw puzzles, and she’s a whiz at it.

One day she sees an ad from a person seeking a puzzle partner. She contacts him and, in a move that surprises even herself, takes the commuter train into New York to meet him. Robert (Irrfan Khan) tries her out and is amazed, and they practice two days a week, aiming for the forthcoming national championships.

Louie would object to her spending a day in the city (“Where’s my dinner?”) so she lies about it. That seems out of character, as do a number of her subsequent actions. Meanwhile, her puzzle partner Robert is the only man who takes an interest in her interior life or even supposes she has one. She is like someone dying of thirst offered a glass of water. You’ve guessed the rest.

Denman’s portrayal of Louie, who may have been conceived as a cardboard anti-feminist, is so sympathetic that he actually doesn’t come off as a bad guy.

I was sorry I didn’t like this movie as much as the critics do because I love jigsaw puzzles myself, and what the movie says about the mental process of working on them seemed to me exactly right. They make order out of chaos, when what Agnes is doing is, at least for a time, the exact opposite.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences: 78%.

Blithe Spirit

Blithe Spirit

Brent Harris, Kate MacCluggage, Tina Stafford; photo: Jerry Dalia

Conceived during London’s 1941 Blitz and brought to the page in a six-day writing frenzy, Noël Coward’s quirky comedy Blithe Spirit was meant to counteract the gloom overtaking the country as battlefield deaths mounted and national collapse seemed possible. It became one of the West End’s longest running non-musical productions, with almost 2,000 performances.

The version currently at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on stage through September 2, once again proves this work’s lasting ability to appeal. With spirited direction by Victoria Mack, it moves along briskly, retaining Coward’s farcical elements, though for me, at least, condensing some of that would be appreciated. A bit of business funny the first time isn’t as amusing on the fourth or fifth go.

Still, the author’s ability to craft a witty epigram that seems perfectly apt seventy years later is firmly intact. My favorite, out of the mouth of Charles Condomine: “It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”

Charles, the husband of the story (played by Brent Harris), lives apparently quite happily with his wife Ruth (Kate MacCluggage) in elegant, upperclass English drawing-room style. With unreliable assistance from their well-intentioned maid Edith (Bethany Kay), they put on a dinner party for friends.

The party entertainment will be a séance conducted by a local spiritualist, Madame Arcati (Tina Stafford). What seemed a harmless bit of fun unexpectedly conjures the ghost of Charles’s first wife Elvira (Susan Maris), whom only Charles can see and hear. She interacts with him, though for everyone else, his reactions to her are inexplicable (too many martinis?). He tries to pass them off as a joke.

Intent on disrupting Charles’s current marriage by one means or another, Elvira is a devious and unsympathetic character. Coward thus avoided evoking the sadness that might have accompanied a play so concerned with the death of a young person. (Note that the play ends slightly differently than the movie version, in which Rex Harrison played Charles.)

Harris, who was brilliant in STNJ’s production of Tartuffe earlier this season, shines again, and MacCluggage, as Ruth, extracts every bit of nuance from her character. Stafford and Kay both have the opportunity for broad physical comedy and make the most of it, delightfully. Somehow, the character of Elvira didn’t work for me; she was so slinky and manipulative, it was hard to understand Charles’s attraction, in either her corporeal or spiritual form.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade Comedian Bo Burnham wrote and directed this debut comedy about a girl approaching the end of eighth grade (trailer). Seeing this movie makes your present life look pretty darn good! So while it’s funny, it’s painfully so. Been there. Or someplace similar. While American adolescence has been typically miserable for generations, today’s added dimension is the unrelenting pressure of social media.

The awkward, socially ignored Kayla creates self-help vlogs on topics like “putting yourself out there” and “growing up.” They are mainly a way for this suburban teen to articulate her own confused thoughts and give a pep-talk to herself, because at some point we see her usage stats. No one watches them.

Though New Yorker critic Richard Brody complains that the introvert Kayla has no friends and seems to have no interests (forgetting her participation in the extremely forgettable school band), he’s overlooking not just the video production, but also the way constantly scouring social media dominates Kayla’s day. There’s no time left for swim team or cheerleading practice or piano lessons.

Elsie Fisher does a remarkable playing Kayla. In fact, all the kids are perfect, including “mean girl” Kennedy (played by Catherine Oliviere), for whom Kayla is a non-entity or worse. Message from Kennedy to Kayla: “hi so my mom told me to invite you to my thing tomorrow so this is me doing that.” Kayla is reticent, slightly hunched, but moving forward doggedly, whether to class, a pool party, or, well, life. You have to admire her, including her drive to help others.

At one point, a boy makes a pass at Kayla. Women watching this film will see an all-too-familiar dynamic when he turns what happens into her fault and she ends up apologizing.“Sorry,” she keeps saying, when of course she should have punched his lights out.

Contrast this role and performance with that of Tom in the much-hyped Leave no Trace. Unlike director Debra Granik, Burnham gives Fisher plenty to do, and she does it, with all the stumbling and uncertainty of a thirteen-year-old trying to live up to expectations, but not quite sure what those are.

Kayla’s relationship with her father, a single dad (Josh Hamilton), is what you’d expect. He reaches out, but most of the time she’s too absorbed in her own world to think he’s anything other than embarrassing. Points for hanging in, Dad.

To quote Kayla, “Growing up can be a little bit scary and weird.” Absolutely.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audiences 87%.

American Animals

American AnimalsIn writer-director Bart Layton’s entertaining new film (trailer), four bored college students plot to steal priceless works from the library of Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. Is this a daydream, or will they go through with it? Should they do more than watch old heist films to prepare?

A vivid demonstration of Murphy’s Law, their wildly inadequate scheme is both hilarious and tension-filled. Yet, as far-fetched as it may seem, the film is based on a real episode from 2004 and includes fourth-wall breaking interviews and current-day reflections of the actual would-be thieves and their parents. Using his skills a documentary filmmaker, Layton cleverly meshes their different perspectives on events (who decided what when), and his energetic recreation of their misbegotten enterprise is “singularly fascinating” says Cary Darling in the Houston Chronicle.

The four criminal masterminds are played by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner. The librarian they must disable is played by Ann Dowd (if you’ve watched The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll recognize her voice before you even see her).

Drifty art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) wants something to happen in his life. The idea of the theft comes to him as a kind of vague “what if?”, but when he shares it with Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), he’s found someone with the single-minded enthusiasm to turn it into a sort-of reality.

Have you ever pursued an idea long past the moment when it makes any sense? Then you can understand how the four students got carried away, trapped by their own momentum. What starts out as an especially brazen prank by privileged college students has a long tail of consequences, and at times the former students’ articulate silences express their belated second thoughts. A visual theme based on the paintings of John James Audubon—one of the works they plan to steal is his Birds of America—recurs throughout, adding grace notes to a tawdry episode.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 85% ; audiences: 91%.

Tartuffe

Tartuffe

photo: JerryDalia

A theatrical work maintains its ability to delight audiences for more than 350 years for one reason: continued relevance. Such is the case with Molière’s comic masterpiece Tartuffe, on stage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. This sparkling production, directed by STNJ’s artistic director, Bonnie J. Monte, opened May 19 and runs through June 10.

In 1664, Tartuffe so scandalized the powers-that-be with its take-down of religious hypocrisy and false piety that the right wing clergy banned it. After a few text changes and with French King Louis XIV’s strong support, the ban was lifted five years later. In the current era, with #MeToo, families rent by political divisions, and the difference between truth and lies increasingly contentious, Tartuffe hits home once again.

A 2018 audience responds with fresh outrage to a situation in which a woman is threatened with rape, but the man accusing her attacker is disbelieved—“Now you know what it’s like not to be believed,” says a female character. Today’s audience likewise has a robust appreciation for the wiles of con man and dissembler Tartuffe (played by Brent Harris), his credulous and all-too-willing victim, Orgon (Patrick Toon), and the frustrated household members who cannot convince him of the deception.

That household includes Orgon’s wife Elmire (Caroline Kinsolving), daughter (Sarah Nicole Deaver), son (Aaron McDaniel), Elmire’s brother (William Sturdivant), and the saucy maid Dorine (Victoria Mack). Only Orgon and his mother (Vivian Reed) side with Tartuffe against the family.

Orgon took the pious Tartuffe in when he was a beggar, installed him in his home, and moves him closer and closer to the center of family life. His next plan is to rescind permission for his daughter to marry her love and instead wed her to the odious Tartuffe. Several scenes take place in which Tartuffe’s unwelcome intrusions are thoroughly discussed before we see the man himself. When he does appear, Brent Harris does not disappoint. He is so-o-o-oo smarmy, wearing a long white-blonde wig as pallid as his pieties.

The entire cast is strong, especially Toon and Kinsolving, the delectable Deaver (she has a great scene with her fiancé, played by Mark Hawkins), and Mack and McDaniel’s lively physical comedy. Reed lends an unexpected, preacherly African-American cadence that works admirably with the verse. (The translation is by Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate, the late Richard Wilbur).While some of the speeches tend to be long, the production is so full of movement and wit that it never flags.

Brittany Vasta’s elegant set is perfect for quick entrances, dramatic exits, and closet-hiding, and the mouth-watering costumes are by Nikki Delhomme.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!