true story

REVIEW: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

When author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) falls on hard times as her books aren’t selling, she turns to forging letters from famous dead authors, poets and playwrights in order to make a living.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a witty and entertaining heist film that has a lot more going on than one might think. While it’s certainly a small-scale heist film, behind the crime Lee is committing, is a story of loneliness. Lee is grouchy and often nasty, and she much prefers to spend time with her cat than with people. Her reclusive and curt nature doesn’t make her popular with her agent (a brilliantly scathing Jane Curtin) nor make her well-known enough to have people want to buy her books.

Melissa McCarthy gives a great performance in a more serious role. Her sensitive take on Lee’s hostilities makes her more than an unlikeable cat lady, instead being someone who has layers and is afraid of getting hurt. Richard E. Grant almost steals the show though as street smart charmer Jack Hock. He helps Lee fence her forgeries and his friendship comes along when she needs it the most. Their chemistry is wonderful as both Jack and Lee were gay, they appear to have a unique understanding of one another. In many ways they are complete opposites but for the most part they work together, their interactions are certainly very funny.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a darkly witty little crime film. The script and direction make you like an unlikable character from almost the very beginning and the performances are brilliant. 4/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Syria: Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph by Yusra Mardini

At just seventeen, Yusra Mardini and her older sister Sara, decide to flee their native Syria when the fighting gets too dangerous. Together they make the perilous journey to the Turkish coast and board a small inflatable dinghy bound for Lesbos. Twenty passengers are forced onto the tiny craft and soon the engine dies and the boat begins to sink. Yusra, Sara and two others jump into the sea to lighten the load and help navigate the water for an exhausting three and a half hours until they reach the shore, they save the lives of everyone on board. Butterfly follows Yusra’s life from a happy childhood, to growing up in a war-torn suburb of Damascus, through Europe to Berlin and on to Rio de Janeiro where she competes as a part of the Refugee Olympic Team.

Yusra, her sister, and the other people they met as they travelled to Europe are all so incredibly strong and brave. Yusra and Sara have to leave Syria without their mother and younger sister. While they face dangers as they deal with the sea, smugglers, and the police across Europe, there’s still the constant worry about their family who are still in a city where there’s almost constant shelling and gunfire.

It’s tough to read about Yusra’s life in Damascus after the conflict starts. It’s sad that she becomes desensitised to the sound of gunfire or explosions so quickly when she’s a young teenager. She and her family have so many near misses when it comes to dangerous situations. For instance, Yusra is training in the swimming pool when a bomb falls through the ceiling, lands in the pool, and doesn’t explode. There’s a mad rush to get as far away from the place as possible and that incident puts a stop to Yusra’s training and dreams of the Olympics for a while.

Yusra’s story does well to capture how there’s good and bad people everywhere. How someone might call the police on a group of refugees because the constant media cycle about terrorists makes them paranoid, but then others might volunteer to help people find clothes, food, and somewhere to stay in a country that’s far from home.

Butterfly does so much in disproving the narrative that some portions of the media like to present about refugees. None of them want to leave their home. Before the fighting starts, Yusra and Sara are like any other teenage girls, they go to school, they swim, their have friends and go shopping. Because we, by which I mean Western audiences, often only hear about countries in Syria when there’s conflict, and see images of bombed out cities, and people living in tents with no electricity, it’s easy to take that as face value and presume that’s what life has always been like for those people when in fact it’s the complete opposite.

Yusra’s internal battle with the word “refugee” was fascinating and explained really well. It’s so easy for her to see it as an insult or a sign she’s a charity case, for instance she struggles to decide if she wants to be a part of the Refugee Olympic Team because she feels she should get there the same way as any other competitor. As time passes though, thanks to the people she meets and what she learns about herself, she decides that it’s just a word and it doesn’t make her any lesser than anyone else.

Butterfly is well-written and engaging. I found it easy to care about Yusra, her family and new-found friends. Yusra is an inspiring young woman, but she makes it clear that while she’s learning to use her fame and voice to bring attention to the thing’s refugees go through and how they are still people with hopes and dreams, she is still the same person who loves to swim and wants to compete for her country in the Olympics. 4/5.

REVIEW: Lizzie (2018)

A psychological thriller about the murders on the Borden family in 1892.

I had never heard of Lizzie Borden or the murder of her stepmother and father until earlier this year. To be honest, I’m not sure if it was something I was just oblivious to, or if it’s a story that never really became well known here in the UK.

Chloë Sevigny is captivating as Lizzie Borden. There’s a simmering rage beneath almost everything she does that you cannot look away from. This rage is because of her father (played by an icy Jamey Sheridan) who controls everything she does and belittles her interests.

Lizzie forms a friendship with the family’s new Irish maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart), with her Lizzie finds comfort in an otherwise cold home. The romance and tension between Lizzie and Bridget is electric to begin with but it’s unfortunately lost as the film progresses. More could’ve been made of their relationship but both Sevigny and Stewart give powerful performances.

Costuming and set design are both beautiful and haunting in equal measure, making this relatively small budgeted film look lavish. Lizzie is a film which seems to fall into a lot of the negative stereotypes of period-dramas, there’s lots of scenes of characters walking slowly down hallways or staring at each other across tables. In some scenes this builds the tension, but in others it seems to be dragging everything out when you’re waiting for the violent act to finally arrive.

Lizzie is an interesting film with a lot to say though it never finds the balance of what it wants to be. It’s a family drama, a crime thriller, and a lesbian romance, but it never gives any of these elements the time to be fully fleshed-out. The performances of its leads are better than the script their given, making Lizzie a straightforward and unremarkable retelling of this classic case. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Tale (2018)

After her mother (Ellen Burstyn) discovers a story she wrote when she was thirteen, Jennifer (Laura Dern) tries to re-examine her first sexual relationship, the people involved and what truly happened that summer.

The Tale is based on writer and director Jennifer Fox’s own experiences and based on the story she wrote as the teenager. This makes this story all the more compelling and heartbreaking as it’s a sexual abuse survivor, telling her story in her own words as she tries to come to terms with what happened to her.

This is not just a story about abuse, but a story about memory. Jennifer can remember her riding teacher Mrs. G (Elizabeth Debicki) and her coach Bill (Jason Ritter) so vividly but has difficulty picturing herself in those memories and remembering how she felt and what she knew. As she reconnects with people who spent the summer with her at the riding school, Jennifer begins to realise that some of her memories don’t match up with other people’s recollections.

The Tale is told with two narratives running parallel to one another; Jennifer as an adult, suddenly having to confront her past, and Jenny as a child (Isabelle Nélisse) living the experiences Jennifer is now recalling. Both Nélisse and Dern give powerful performances. Nélisse is brilliant as she slowly becomes less naïve about the world but still believing that what she’s experiencing is a relationship and that Mrs. G and Bill really love her. Dern is phenomenal as she perfectly captures the anguish as she revisits her past and now she’s older she can start to put into context what she experienced. The scenes where young and present-day Jennifer are in the same space helps show the haziness of memory as between the two of these points of view they try to find the truth of what happened.

The Tale handles the sensitive subject matter with grace and care. It’s a tough film to watch as it doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable and sexual content. However, it’s powerful to see an independent and strong-willed woman reassess the trauma she experienced and decide what to do with that information. 5/5.

REVIEW: Talvar (2015)

When a teenage girl and her family’s servant are found dead, the police investigation is incompetent from the outset, contaminating evidence and accusing a controversial suspect. When experienced investigator Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Khan) joins the case, he must make sense of the little evidence available and several conflicting theories about what really happened.

Talvar is a fictionalised and dramatized version of the 2008 Noida double murder case, a case I personally hadn’t heard of before but one that got the media into a frenzy and all people connected to the case were put on trial by the media before the police or courts could do much else.

You see the night of the murders retold multiple times from different perspectives. Each one using various witness testimonies but also disregarding some other piece of evidence that doesn’t fit the prevailing theory. As the scenes are so different each time, it never feels like you’re retracing old ground, and each flashback serves a purpose.

There’s no getting around the fact that the police originally at the crime scene, did a terrible job, not calling in forensic teams and letting family member, neighbours and journalists walk into the crime scenes with no bother. It’s quite incredible how bad these men were at their jobs. From then on, the film does a good job at presenting all the evidence and suspects in a largely unbiased way, leaving you to decide who you believe.

With so many members of the police force being either unlikable on incompetent (or both) Ashwin is a beacon of sanity in this circus that is an investigation. He’s smart and sympathetic and you can feel his exasperation with this almost impossible case and the bureaucracy surrounding it.

Talvar is a gripping mystery albeit it a frustrating one due to the inept police work that could lead to such a heart-breaking and horrible situation for this family who has lost their daughter. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Croatia: The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić

The edition I read was translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać.

She is nine years old when the Croatian War of Independence breaks out in the summer of 1991. She is sent to a seaside town to be aware from the danger. Meanwhile, her father has disappeared fighting with the Croatian forces. By the time she returns, everything has changed – her father is missing and she, her mother, ad her brother are displaced persons, fleeing the violence with nothing to call their own.

The Hotel Tito is written in first person and all the way through the story you never learn the young girls name. It wasn’t till towards the end of the novel that I realised it was based on author Ivana Bodrožić’s experience, that she was the young girl we were following for five years.

It’s interesting to see the fallout of war from a nine-year-old’s point of view. She doesn’t always understand what different politicians stand for, the political jokes adults around her say, and what could’ve possibly happened to her father. Even as she gets older, and being a displaced person is a part of who she is, she doesn’t always understand people’s resentment towards her and she takes on the attitude of us vs them in regard to her classmates.

The girl, her mother and brother have to live together in one room of a hotel for years. The hotel is for displaced people, with whole families to a single room. As she becomes a teenager it’s harder for her because both she and her older brother don’t have any personal space, they are stuck in one room that isn’t a home for years.

I knew nothing about the Croatian War of Independence before reading The Hotel Tito. I really mean nothing as it was a conflict that I had never even heard of. The fact that people had to move from one part of the country to another for their own safety, leaving their homes and belongings, and were often met with hostility from their own countrymen is hard to wrap my head around. These people were refugees in their own country, and their own politicians near enough abandoned them, with no home and little to no financial support.

The Hotel Tito is the story of a family who are stuck in limbo, and a young girl who not only has the usual struggles that comes with becoming a teenager, arguing with siblings, fancying boys and going to parties, but also having a sense of no real security. The Hotel Tito is easily accessible thanks to seeing such harsh realities of war through the eyes of a young person, but that makes this true story even sadder.

REVIEW: Battle of the Sexes (2017)

The true story of the 1973 tennis match between World Number One Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and ex-champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell).

What’s really interesting about Battle of the Sexes is that it’s main focus isn’t just the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs but how society was in the 1970’s in relation to the women’s movement and how King and Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) set up their own women’s tennis tournament. This allows you to really see where King was coming from, what obstacles she and other female tennis players were facing, and how hard she fought for respect from her male peers. This helps you realise how difficult a decision it was for King to take up Riggs on his offer, as the weight of people’s expectations were on her shoulders. This build up to the big match also gives time to Riggs side of the story, showing his more human-side and how he may not believe all the chauvinist stuff he says but rather says it for a reaction.

Everyone gives compelling performances in Battle of the Sexes. Emma Stone does a great job in portraying the inner conflict in King as she finds herself attracted to hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) while still caring for her husband Larry (Austin Stowell). Carell is hilarious as Riggs, but you also get to see his vulnerabilities that comes with being a gambling addict.

Battle of the Sexes has snappy dialogue, compelling characters and is a lot of fun. It balances the drama with the comedy and when you finally see the match between King and Riggs, it’s a thrilling showdown between two larger than life people.

Battle of the Sexes is a great film with an important message and themes and it’s so unfortunate that those themes of equal rights and opportunities between the sexes is still so prevalent over 40 years later. 4/5.