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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

This fact-based account of author Lee Israel’s 1990s crime spree as a forger of literary letters makes for blackly comic, compelling and ultimately moving cinema. Director Marielle Heller’s film showcases two stand-out performances: from Melissa McCarthy as Israel and from Richard E. Grant as fellow boozehound renegade, Jack Hock.

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In adapting Israel’s 2008 memoir screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty have a treasure-trove of bitchy one-liners to draw upon. The biographer was evidently a ‘difficult’ personality, someone whose bad behaviour enlivens Can You Ever Forgive Me?

But McCarthy doesn’t play for easy laughs; she breathes depth and soul into this frumpy middle-aged New Yorker with a caustic tongue, who refuses to play the publishing game and likes cats better than people. At first the actor’s Jimmy Krankie hair and spinster librarian wardrobe jolts the viewer – it is nearly as off-putting as her drunken response to journalist colleagues at the start of the film (“fuck off!”). But we soon get used to her misanthropy and “crimes against fashion.”

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In 1991 hard-drinking Lee is “going through a rough patch,” behind with the rent and in need of funds to pay vet’s bills for her sick cat. Her apartment is also in need of a detox – it has a plague of flies, probably attracted to the fossilised cat turds under her bed. Once on the New York Times Bestseller list, Lee is trying to write a biography of comedienne, Fanny Brice, but writer’s block gets in the way: “This is me sitting down to fucking write,” she types on a blank sheet of paper.

A way out presents itself when Lee sells a personal letter she received from Katharine Hepburn to a local book dealer for $175. Told that she would have been paid more for if the content of the letter had been more interesting, Israel begins to forge and sell letters by famous dead writers and actors, embellishing them with postscripts and intimate and scandalous details. She invests in a collection of second-hand typewriters similar to those used by her subjects.

A chance meeting in a bar with old drinking buddy Jack Hock (Grant) leads to shared reminiscences and mischief. The two scoundrels play phone pranks on her enemies and crease up laughing like teenagers – McCarthy does a wicked impersonation of director Nora Ephron.

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Richard E. Grant almost steals the show as Jack, a rakish old queen who recalls the actor’s memorably debauched debut in Withnail & I (1987). Asked by Lee if he is working, Jack replies “this and that. Mostly that.” With his flamboyant swept-back hair, scarf, perma-fag and one cutting use of the ‘c’ word, Jack’s cheery “Chin chin!” seals the deal.

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When the FBI finally catch up with Israel she is unrepentant, confessing in court that “in many ways this has been the best time of my life.” Nobody got hurt, after all, and the people who paid inflated sums of money for her forgeries are mostly presented as greedy and pretentious. This was hardly a scam on the scale of the Hitler Diaries.

In a strange way Lee is keeping the literary flame alive (“I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”). She believes in her own integrity, that her letters provide “a portal into a better time and place when people actually honoured the written word.”

Lee Israel forged and sold around 400 letters. Two of her forgeries were included in a 2007 biography of Noel Coward. A critic called her 2008 memoir “a sordid and pretty damn fabulous book”. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a sordid and pretty damn fabulous film.

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Three Identical Strangers

This stranger-than-fiction documentary about triplets who were separated at birth will have you shaking your head in disbelief. Starting off like a Disney fairy tale, Three Identical Strangers becomes a sinister conspiracy thriller. With its echoes of Nazi medical experimentation during the Holocaust, the film is like a blockbuster idea from writer William Goldman (Marathon Man), rejected by his agent for being too outlandish.

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Talking head testimony from the brothers, their families, friends and others, are often accompanied by dramatic reconstructions of the events they describe. There are chatshow clips from 1980, their walk-on part with Madonna from Desperately Seeking Susan, as well as home video footage. This documentary rarely pauses for breath, but when words fail, zen-like images help us digest the human fall-out from this drama. “My brother Eddie could light up a room with his smile,” says David. Cut to the evening sunlight going down behind a chimney stack.

Robert Shafran tells the story of how he first met his brothers. It was his first day at college and any nerves soon turned to stunned surprise as a succession of strangers greeted him like a returning hero. Girls kissed him and asked him how his summer was. “Eddie! How are you?” One of Eddie’s friends phones the real  Edward Galland up and they drive to Long Island in the middle of the night. “The door opens … and here I am. His eyes were my eyes.” They looked exactly alike and moved as if they were looking in the mirror.

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“Then it went from being amazing to being incredible,” narrates Robert. After a journalist covered the story David Kellman’s wife saw a photo of the twins and the three brothers were reunited for the first time since their birth in 1961. “They knew each other. There was no need for introductions,” says Eddie’s grandfather, “I watched three lives becoming one.”

When they compared notes, it turned out the brothers all had the same taste in booze, cars and women; they all smoked Marlboro cigarettes and wrestled. In 1980 this ‘fairy tale’ reunion went viral and became a media circus. Soon they were living together in New York, dancing at Studio 54 and mixing with celebrities. They opened a restaurant called Triplets and life was like “a big barmitzvah.”

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But as the brothers begin to ask questions about their past the dream turns into a nightmare. Why were they separated at birth, when experts knew it would result in separation anxiety and terrible deprivation? There is anger directed at the elite adoption agency, Louise Wise, which specialised in Jewish babies

Journalist and author, Laurence Wright, begins to research an obscure scientific study which separated babies at birth for the purposes of psychological study. He discovers that the three infant brothers were intentionally placed with families at different economic levels – one blue-collar, one middle-class, and one wealthy. Their progress was then monitored by assistants, who would visit them periodically to film them and conduct tests. The shocking truth was that they were ‘lab-rats’ in a science experiment. It was “like some Nazi shit … it felt like our lives had been orchestrated by these scientists.”

What was the aim of the study? Psychiatrist Peter B. Neubauer felt that this was an opportunity to ‘prove’ once and for all which was stronger, nature or nurture.  A research assistant admits that “in retrospect, it was undoubtedly ethically wrong”.

Why did the boys’ lives turn out so different? “I saw it at first hand,” says Wright, “it’s all about nurture.” There were many superficial similarities between the triplets, but deep down they were different. Their lives were not proof that ‘biology is destiny’, but that ‘nurture can overcome nearly everything’.

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Bohemian Rhapsody

This hugely enjoyable biopic of Freddie Mercury and his band Queen features a wonderful lead performance from Rami Malek (of Mr Robot fame). Without him Bohemian Rhapsody would be a breezy musical ride through Queen’s back catalogue, following them from early 1970s glam rock beginnings to their global coronation at Live Aid in 1984.

The opening Queen-ified Twentieth-Century Fox fanfare sets the film’s tongue-in-cheeky tone. Fact and fiction blur as momentous events in the band’s career and Freddie’s life are reduced to amusing one-liners. Bohemian Rhapsody skates over the surface of Mercury’s private life but still manages to pack in two love stories and a darker one of hedonism and betrayal.

Above all, we are treated to the mostly fantastic original music. With guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor on board as Musical Producers, the cinema sound quality is loud, proud and crystal clear. We watch amusing dramatizations of the genesis of hits like We Will Rock You, Another One Bites the Dust and Bohemian Rhapsody itself, which, at first listen, did not wow the critics. “It’s six bloody minutes!” splutters (fictional) EMI exec Ray Foster (Mike Myers in a scene-stealing cameo). “What on earth is it about? Scaramouche? Galileo? Beelzebub? And that Ismallah business?” What EMI is really looking for is “a song teenagers can bang their heads to in a car”.

Queen are shown pushing musical boundaries and trying to mix genres at a time when rock and pop didn’t really do opera or disco. The band also poke fun at gender stereotypes in their video for I Want to Break Free, which, ridiculously, was banned in America – presumably because it made its straight-laced moral guardians feel uncomfortable seeing Roger Taylor dressed as a schoolgirl. Freddie: “they’re puritans in public and perverts in private.”

Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek shares something of Mercury’s exotic charisma. He has big expressive brown eyes, angular cheekbones and the rock star’s strut. At first Malek’s false front teeth look a bit Dick Emery comedy vicarish, but he grows into them, just as he grows into the part the longer he’s on screen. Malek obviously did his YouTube homework, to the point that he often seems to be channeling Freddie’s camp bravado and waspish wit.

When we first meet buck-toothed Farrokh Bulsara he is working as a baggage-handler at Heathrow Airport, on the look-out for something more than the casual racism he attracts from his co-workers. He goes to see a band called Spice, whose singer has just quit. “Then you’ll need a new one,” says Farrokh, breaking into song, and leaving them slack-jawed with amazement. “I was born with 4 extra incisors,” he tells his bandmates, “more teeth means more range.”

Transforming himself into Freddie Mercury doesn’t go down well with his father, who warns him “you can’t get anywhere pretending to be someone that you’re not.” His sexuality remains under wraps, as he proposes to his girlfriend, Mary (Lucy Boynton), but she soon states the bleedin’ obvious: “Freddie, you’re gay”.

New slimy personal manager Paul (Allen Leech) leads him astray and soon Freddie is burning the candle at both ends (“the glow is so divine!”). Falling out with Mary and the band, he embraces the excesses of early 1980s partying with (gay) abandon: “Shake the freak tree and invite anyone who drops to the ground – dwarves, giants … and priests. We’re going to need to confess.”

Bohemian Rhapsody had a troubled history – original director Bryan Singer was fired and Sacha Baron Cohen, cast to play Freddie, also left following ‘creative differences’. With them on board it could have been a much darker and more realistic biopic. But the film has camp silliness and rakish charm; it ends up being enormous fun, much like Freddie himself.

Stan & Ollie

This love-letter to Laurel & Hardy, the greatest film comedy double-act, features remarkable performances by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly. Devotees of the beloved duo, who will have watched Stan & Ollie’s films countless times, will be astounded by the authenticity on show in director Jon S. Baird’s elegiac and moving dramatisation of their 1953 tour-of-Britain swansong.

The actors go beyond mimicry to capture much of the pair’s soul and comic chemistry. Prosthetics can only get you so far (Reilly’s double chin and Coogan’s extended ears), but their eyes, voices and movement are uncanny. At times it feels like watching the real thing. As their English promoter (Rufus Jones) says, after Laurel & Hardy perform an inspired ‘double door’ routine, “that was pure magic!”

We start in 1937, on the set of Way Out West, when Stan & Ollie were the biggest stars in Hollywood. The pair are captured performing their immortal dance routine (surely the inspiration for La La Land’s star-crossed lovers). But all is not well. There are wife problems, gambling problems and money problems. Stan, the writer and creative force behind their films, wants them to own their pictures, but Ollie is more easy-going, happy to stay hitched to studio boss (and, we learn, Mussolini fan), Hal Roach.

Cut to dark and rainy Newcastle, England, 1953. Laurel & Hardy book themselves into the Bottle & Glass Inn, where the welcome is less than warm. The receptionist says that she thought they’d retired. At first their British tour attracts meagre crowds in second-rate halls. Time has moved on – they have been overtaken by Norman Wisdom and Abbott & Costello. The comedown is cruel.

But as our aging heroes are forced back together, performing highlights on stage from their films (“boiled eggs and nuts! Hmm!”), they re-discover the old magic. By the time they reach London their publicity stunts ensure a sold-out fortnight at the Lyceum Theatre. Then their wives arrive at the Savoy and old tensions re-surface.

Now we get two double-acts for the price of one: in Stan & Ollie Ida (Nina Arianda) and Lucille (Shirley Henderson) get as nearly as many laughs as their husbands. Laurel’s wife is a no-nonsense Russian blonde who recalls the hard-boiled dames from L&H’s heyday; Lucille is petite and squeaky-voiced, perhaps channelling Hardy’s wife (Stan in drag) in Twice Two (1933).

‘The Boys’ fall out and ‘Babe’ Hardy has a minor heart attack. Rather than cancel the last dates of their tour, the promoter suggests that Laurel team up with Nobby Cook, an unfunny English comedian. But disaster is averted and there is a heart-warming finale in which love and talent triumph.

It might be too much to hope that a new generation flock to see Stan & Ollie and are inspired to seek out the real thing. But Baird’s film honours their memory beautifully. A little too quiet, post-war drab and melancholy for a young modern audience, perhaps, but Coogan and Reilly have worked wonders in bringing Laurel & Hardy to life.

There is a lovely technicolor scene from Stan’s imagined film ‘Robin Good’, in which Ollie (Friar Tuck) falls into a pond. The long-suffering look he then gives to camera and the unhurried way he spouts water from his mouth are pure Oliver Hardy. I never thought anyone could get close to capturing Ollie’s portly elegance, his baroque hand gestures and good-humoured stoicism, but, in those moments, it is truly like we are watching a long-lost Laurel & Hardy film. Magic.

Shoplifters

This understated, moving and humane Japanese drama (direct translation: ‘Shoplifting Family’) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2018 and it’s easy to see why: the film gets under your skin and stays with you long after the credits have rolled. Writer-Director-Editor Hirokazu Kore-eda inspires naturalistic and nuanced acting from his ensemble cast and creates several memorably cinematic scenes amidst the small-scale canvas of domestic life.

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Shoplifters feels like a Ken Loach film in its compassionate and unsentimental depiction of poverty. It also put me in mind of The Florida Project (2017), which shows us ‘diamonds in the rough’ of breadline America.

The Shibata family appear to be an unusually happy family, doing all the fun things that many families do – going to the seaside, watching fireworks, making a snowman and slurping noodles. But here the grown-ups teach the kids how to shoplift, rather than sending them to school. “We’re connected but we’re not normal,” says father figure Osamu (Lily Franky). This is an unconventional family unit based on love and choice, rather than bloodline, and Kore-eda asks us to ponder the question: would we be happier if we could pick our own family?

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Shoplifters starts with Osamu (Lily Franky) and his ‘son’ Shota (Kairi Jo) stealing groceries in a supermarket, using a practised routine, syncopated to the film’s music. On the way home they encounter a skinny little girl who is seemingly living on the street. As it is freezing cold, Osamu invites her to stay the night at their house.

The next day Osamu and his partner Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) try to take the girl, Yuri, home, but overhear her parents arguing, the dad saying “I didn’t want to have her too”. As a result, Yuri stays with them, despite concerns that the outside world will judge them to be ‘kidnappers’.

The Shibata family squeeze into a cramped and cluttered Tokyo apartment which resembles the back room of a charity shop. Osamu and Nobuyo work part-time and grown-up daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) is a sex worker, but they supplement their income by shoplifting. “Whatever’s in a store doesn’t belong to anyone yet”, says Osamu. This ramshackle family are free spirits and live in apparent harmony and kindness, in contrast to other more traditional families depicted in the film.

As the disturbing truth about the Shibata family gradually emerges, Kore-eda overturns our preconceptions and challenges us to judge his characters’ behaviour. We might to agree with Nobuyo that “giving birth doesn’t automatically make you a mother.” ‘Grandma’ Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) says she chose to live with Nobuyo because she didn’t want to grow old on her own – “Sometimes it’s better to choose your own family.”

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In her last film before her death Kirin Kiki is a warm, wise and twinkly granny, who gets many of Shoplifters’ best lines. After Aki models her latest top, she asks “so side tits are popular now?”

In a film that is mostly confined to interiors, its standout scenes include a train ride to the seaside and the aerial shot of the family watching fireworks. Here we do not see the fireworks at all, only upturned faces responding to them. As ever, Kore-eda is unconcerned with pyrotechnics; he is more interested in how his family interact with each other and the outside world.

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The Witch Hunters (Zlogonje)

This charming, moving and funny Serbian/Macedonian children’s adventure has been winning awards at film festivals around the world. It is both fresh and old-fashioned, dealing with disability in a no-nonsense way, while harking back to remembered childhoods of home-made train sets and outdoor play.

The Witch Hunters is a long way from the CGI bombast of Hollywood’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. At heart it is a gentle, quirky comedy about friendship and imagination, about how children create their own stories and folklore from the mysterious and baffling behaviour of adults.

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10-year-old Jovan (Mihajlo Milavic) has partial cerebral palsy. His condition has shaped his everyday life and made him think of himself as invisible to others – particularly his parents and classmates. In the world of his imagination, however, he is The Shade, a masked superhero in a blue cape who can vaporise the bullies who call him “gimp.”

With a bit of help from mum Jovan has created a fabulous model city (Shade City) in his bedroom, where he can retreat into his fantasies. With its glow-globe and primary-coloured Tintin book spines, Jovan’s room will arouse nostalgic childhood feelings in viewers of a certain age. He plays Monopoly with his parents (“the market forces are fierce,” says dad) and gets hold of a pair of old walkie-talkies, but he also plays screen games such as ‘Salem’.

Jovan’s life is shaken up by the arrival of a new classmate, Milica (Silma Mahmuti), who sits next to him in class. At first he is put out, drawing a line down the middle of the desk they share. But as he becomes friends with the brave and determined girl, she breaks down the barriers that Jovan has built around himself.

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The two unaffected young actors are a joy together and a smart script gives them some great lines. In Jovan’s nightmare at the start of the film a gang of ruffians chase him into a run-down factory. One says “I didn’t know you degenerates were allowed out after dark.”

Sitting together in his bedroom Jovan asks Milica, “What’s a degenerate?”

“Someone who drinks urine,” she replies.

When Jovan takes Milica to look in the cellar of his dead grandmother’s house, they find a playing card with an old crone on it. Milica tells him about her stepmother, who she says is a real witch. She might look like a real woman, but Svetlana has bewitched her father: “no one can fall in love twice – it’s not natural.” She makes him drink potions and do yoga exercises. She writes symbols on the walls. But “the worst thing of all is the black salt” that she sprinkles on his eggs.

“Old people are such fools,” says Jovan.

Milica invites Jovan to join her on a real-life adventure – to save her father from this witch. The quest offers Jovan a reality beyond anything he could have imagined, but to become a real superhero Jovan must first learn to accept himself for who he is.

Frustrated that he cannot climb a few steps, Jovan tells his therapist at the hospital that he wants a new body. The therapist tells him that his condition cannot be cured, but it can be improved by exercise. Most importantly, Jovan can’t do it by himself – he needs to accept help from other people.

As Jovan and Milica embark on their night-time mission, he gets on a bus for the first time with a bit of help from a burly biker. The two children sit and watch the night-time world go by, and their smiles are priceless.

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The Guilty (Den Skyldige)

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This stark and gripping Danish thriller succeeds in packing a punch, despite self-imposed limitations. The Guilty confines its visual action to a single location – the interior of a police control room in which officers responds to emergency phone calls.  It is like an audio play, with ‘voices off’, one that becomes psychologically darker and more complex the longer we spend with the main character, Asger (Jakob Cedergren). It has also been described as a cerebral action film, and the audience is forced to listen more intensely, to imagine what is happening off-screen as if we are listening to a radio drama.

The Guilty brings to mind Steven Knight’s Locke (2014), another claustrophic ‘audio’ film, in which Tom Hardy’s character juggles multiple unfolding dramas over his car phone. Locke, though, has movement, and the occasional cinematic flourish – spangled motorway lights blurring in the rear-view mirror. In The Guilty there is no escape from a static location and there is little in the way of visual distraction. As two parallel dramas threaten to overwhelm him, Asger retreats to an inner office room and closes the blinds. We are, effectively, in his head, and it is getting very dark in there. If Samuel Beckett had scripted a thriller for cinema it would have looked and sounded something like this, but there would have been more props and black comedy.

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The film begins with Asger fielding a couple of ‘trivial’ calls, one from a student freaking out after taking drugs, the other from a man who has been mugged after visiting a prostitute in Copenhagen’s red light district. “This phone duty is shit,” says a colleague. But Asger takes his work more seriously when he receives a call from Iben (Jessica Dinnage), a mother who has been abducted by a violent partner, leaving her six-year-old daughter and baby alone at home.

Asger tries his best to resolve the situation, separately counselling the distressed Iben and her daughter. “I’m with the police,” he reassures them, “we’re protectors,” but this confident assertion is tested as we learn more about his own situation. Asger has a court case the next day and a witness who is worried about sticking to the script. He apologises to his colleagues for his behaviour – “not just today but recently.” As the film goes on we gradually learn who is ‘guilty’, and there is a jaw-dropping twist.

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Director and co-writer Gustav Möller pulls off the seemingly impossible trick of engaging his audience for 85 minutes without resorting to eye candy or any other distraction. The music is minimal, the camerawork unobtrusive. Jakob Cedergren plays Asger as a blank page which is filled in bit by bit. His face is in our faces most of the time, but it is not a particularly interesting or expressive one. A light sheen of sweat on his forehead is the only clue to the mounting stress he is under. As our imaginations follow the offscreen drama we are forced to direct our own version of Möller’s script in our own heads.