Thursday, November 15, 2018

An overstuffed 'Fantastic Beasts' movie

There are pleasures in the second Beasts movie, but it spends too much time running in place.
Back in the Pleistocene days of my youth, vendors at ballparks had a standard cry, "Get your scorecard here. Can't tell the players without a scorecard." We're talking about the days before mammoth scoreboards boasted screens the size of buildings. In my youth, the assumption was that if you arrived at the ballpark, you most likely came to watch the game.

I begin my review of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of the Grindelwald this way because I wish someone had handed me a character roster before I saw the movie. Not only did I have to remember characters from the first movie in the series, but I had to track new additions.

All this by way of saying that this edition of Fantastic Beasts is a bit of a muddle that advances the series' overarching story only by a couple of inches -- and takes 134 minutes to do it. Obviously, a planned five-part series can't deliver its biggest bang in episode two, but a little more end-of-picture satisfaction would have been welcome. At the end of Beasts, I felt as if the story had worked up lots of sweat but mostly had been running in place.

Director David Yates, working from a screenplay by J.K Rowling -- she of the sacred word -- is asked to juggle a variety of plot points that revolve in a dizzying orbit around Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the series' ostensible main character, a wizard devoted to studying magical zoology. Some of Scamander's creatures live in a magical suitcase that the diffident wizard carries with him at all times.

Grindelwald, you'll learn, is an evil wizard played by a Johnny Depp, whose normal complexion has been augmented with enough white make-up to create the impression that pallor and villainy have become synonymous. Grindelwald seems to be a fairy tale Hitler, a fascist who wants to save the world with wizard pure blood before muggles (humans) screw things up entirely. The movie is set in the 1920s.

The movie opens with Grindelwald escaping from prison and moving to Paris. Among other pursuits, Grindelwald is trying to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a baffled young man who's eager to find out who his parents were. Another returning figure from the first installment, Credence seems morbidly depressed.

Then there are our old friends Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudo). She reads minds. He doesn't mind. The couple provides much of the comedy you'll find in The Crimes of Grindelwald, aside from some of the better visual flourishes.

Redmayne, who seems to be wandering through the movie, eventually encounters a middle-aged Dumbledore (Jude Law) who asks him to confront Grindelwald, something Dumbledore himself can't do because he and Grindelmore once were more than brothers and friends -- or some such. Hmm.

Law, by the way, comes closest to calming the movie down to tolerable levels. His Dumbledore seems a welcome pillar of simplicity in a screenful of visual over-abundance.

Other participants in this pre-Potter farrago are Katherine Waterston as Tina, a former Auror; i.e., a wizard chosen to fight crime. Zoe Kravitz turns up as one of Newt's former classmate's at Hogwarts; the fabled school makes a rather brief but welcome appearance in what I'm choosing to call Beasts II, following on the heels of 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Crimes of Grindelwald probably qualifies as one of those critic-proof movies that fans will support, even if they quibble with some of its choices and there are pleasures to be had from Philippe Rousselot's cinematography, from the scale of some of the movie's more elaborate settings and from some of its visual invention.

Somewhere in all this Rowling bric-a-brac, a serious confrontation between good and evil lurks. If I had a magic wand, I'd wave it and order all concerned to please get on with it.

Too embattled to wallow in grief

Viola Davis leads a strong cast in Widows, a caper movie with plenty of cynical undertow.
In Widows, director Steve McQueen flirts with high-concept formula but never allows it to overwhelm the movie's gritty undertow.

Written by McQueen (Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years A Slave) and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), Widows wraps pungent characterizations around a caper-film spine. If the plot strains at times, a fine cast and McQueen's scaldingly cynical view of life in Chicago keep the proceedings percolating.

Viola Davis stars as Veronica Rawlings, a woman whose criminal husband (Liam Neeson) dies in the film's barreling, violent prologue. Neeson's Harry and four colleagues are the in the midst of a robbery when they're killed.

Harry leaves Veronica with a pile of trouble. A local gangster (Brian Tyree Henry) claims that Harry owed him $2 million. He's holding Veronica responsible for the debt.

Henry's Jamal Manning also wants to shift to a new kind of crime. He's running for alderman because he believes it's time that he had the opportunity to dip his crust of bread into the municipal gravy that the Irish too long have sopped up. Manning's brother (Daniel Kaluuya) serves as his happily brutal enforcer.

In a related plot thread, Colin Farrell plays Jack Mulligan, the incumbent who's running against Manning. Mulligan is the son of a corrupt former Chicago alderman (Robert Duvall) with a sour disposition and a strong commitment to holding political turf his family has dominated for years.

So how is Veronica going to pay off Harry's debt? As it turns out, Harry left Veronica plans for a major heist that could yield as much as $5 million. Because all of Harry's henchmen were killed in the movie's explosive opening, it falls to Veronica to gather the surviving widows into an impromptu gang, pull off the heist, settle Harry's debt and divide the remaining spoils.

Everyone in Veronica's crew suffers from need. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) signs on because she's lost her store to rapacious creditors. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is one step away from becoming a full-time escort, saved only by the largess of a wealthy financier (Lukas Haas) who makes her his mistress. Amanda (Carrie Coon) has been left with an infant.

Jacki Weaver shows up as Alice's unapologetically sleazy mother, and Cynthia Erivo adds last-minute energy as a woman recruited to drive the getaway car.

A women's perspective gives the movie's crime and political theater a considerable boost. Think of Widows as feminism without speeches, a genre piece featuring female characters with real agency.

It's hardly surprising that Davis proves impressively steely as a woman who misses her husband's tender embraces but proves tough enough to lead her cronies through dangerous terrain. Displaying iron-willed resolve, Veronica takes charge of her gang of widows, no easy task with this group of independent-minded women.

Widows has enough on its mind to keep from becoming one more helping of multiplex fodder. McQueen wisely lets Davis lead the way as a widow who shouldn't be messed with -- even in a world in which felons and politicians often are indistinguishable.*

*I want to reiterate that I welcome comments, particularly those that expand our knowledge about particular films or films in general. But -- and this is the point of this footnote -- I don't publish anonymous comments. Over the years, I've found that many readers have worthwhile things to say and should in no way be reluctant to take credit for their comments. So, sign your name and chime in.

Gary Hart's fall from political grace

The Front Runner doesn't quite make it as a relevant foray into the world of journalism and politics.
In 1987, Gary Hart fell from political grace. Hard.

A sure bet to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1988, Hart was undone by names that suddenly dominated the news, notably, a girl named Donna Rice and a yacht named Monkey Business.

Hart defended himself against charges of marital infidelity by insisting that his private life was no one’s business but his own. He was staunch in his resolve, but couldn't save himself.

Hart’s fall probably is destined to become a footnote in American political history, unless you’re convinced — as some are — that Hart’s story changed journalism and the fate of the US. That’s a heavy burden for one man to carry and it’s also a burden that the movie The Front Runner can’t carry, either.

Based on All the Truth is Out, a fine book by journalist Matt Bai, The Front Runner tries to take an encompassing approach to Hart’s story, leaning toward a view that blames the press — particularly a couple of Miami Herald reporters — for staking out Hart’s Washington, D.C. townhouse in hopes of confirming a dalliance with Rice.

As a result, the press and the national debate became focused on character (or lack of it) instead of the salient issues of the day -- or so the argument goes.

Director Jason Reitman had a hand in writing the screenplay, along with Bai and Jay Carson, a political operative who also works in the entertainment business, having done multiple duties on Netflix's House of Cards. The screenplay makes various points throughout but Front Runner remains frustratingly diffuse.

Hugh Jackman has been cast as Hart. Jackman does as well as possible in conveying Hart’s intelligence, his insistence on not answering certain kinds of questions and his refusal to listen to a staff that knew he was in more trouble than he realized.

The peripheral performances are a mixed bag. Steve Zissis and Bill Burr portray two Miami Herald reporters, narrowly focused guys who see only one side of the journalistic argument: Get the story, let the chips fall where they may.

Mamoudou Athie plays a Washington Post reporter (a composite figure) who agonizes about what his editors want him to ask Hart. Ann Devroy appears as an editor at the Washington Post who claims that the press isn't going too far: Powerful men shouldn’t abuse their power with impressionable young women.

Molly Ephraim has a nice turn as a Hart aide who understands how painful it is for Rice (Sara Paxton) to have been thrust into a maelstrom. Ephraim's character winds up selling Rice out anyway.

I’m an admirer of actor Alfred Molina, but even he can’t overcome the images of Ben Bradlee created by actors in previous movies (Jason Robards in All the President’s Men and Tom Hanks in The Post) — not to mention a couple of documentaries in which the real Bradlee can be seen.

J.K. Simmons, a Reitman regular, plays Hart's campaign manager, a role that could have used some expansion. Still, Simmons conveys the dejection that haunts a man who sees a cause in which he deeply believes going down the drain.

In dealing with Hart’s wife, Lee, who's played here by Vera Farmiga, the movie suggests that Lee and Gary Hart had reached some sort of agreement about how they’d conduct their marriage with Lee stipulating only that she didn’t want to be embarrassed by her husband. After the Rice debacle, Lee Hart found her home in Troublesome Gulch, Co., besieged by reporters. She became another victim.

Nearly everything about The Front Runner plays against unstated ironies. Bill Clinton survived Monica Lewinsky and the current resident of the White House has set a new bar for what we know about the sexual behavior of a president.

If you haven’t read Bai’s book, you should. But the real story of Gary Hart remains unknowable. Was he a hero who stood up for rights of privacy? Was he an arrogant man who believed he had a license to be reckless? Was he really brilliant enough to have altered the course of American history? Did he foresee every important problem we face today?

Reitman does a good job creating the chaotic swirl that surrounds a political campaign. He also inserts enough sardonic humor to make Front Runner entertaining but the movie can't sustain the kind of absurdist kick that Reitman brought to his best movies: Thank Your for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air.

If The Front Runner is meant to be taken as a cautionary tale, it arrives 30 years too late. In the current bold-faced clash between powerful politicians and journalists, the Hart story already has been consigned to small print.

The Coens sing a weird ballad

Six short films make for a mixed bag in the Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) tackle the West in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-part anthology of short films in which breathtaking visual acuity couples with a morbid sense of humor and western mythology gives way to chilly existential horror. The six films -- united because they're presented as part of a book in which they're bound -- suggest crossbreeding between lurid western pulp and tales told around a campfire.

Not all of the episodes are successful and, sorry to say, stretches of the movie are duller than you might expect from the Coens. But this is a Coen brothers film and, as such, demands some attention from those who've been following the Coens since the days of Blood Simple, some 24 years ago.

In the first episode, Tim Blake Nelson plays the title character, a singing cowboy with an aggressively cheerful manner. Nelson's Buster Scruggs is also a killer who guns people down between songs. One of the movie's best episodes, this one also serves as an announcement that the Coens are hell-bent on replacing the Wild, Wild West with the Weird, Weird West.

Other chapters in the Ceon's rueful book include a story about hanging starring James Franco and a bizarre riff on wagon-train movies that focuses on a woman (Zoe Kazan) traveling west to start a new life but meeting with a sorry fate.

Then there's Meal Ticket, the story of a traveling showman (Liam Neeson) who goes from town to town with a legless, armless man called Hamilton, the Wingless Thrush (Harry Melling). Neeson's character sets Hamilton on the stage where he recites Shelley, Shakespeare and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to increasingly sparse audiences. Hamilton's career soon will be undermined by an unlikely new entertainer.

Tom Waits portrays a lone prospector who strikes gold but must fend off trouble.

The final chapter of this blood-stained book takes place on a stagecoach where Saul Rubinek (as a Frenchman), Tyne Daly (as a rigidly upright woman), Chelcie Ross (as the always-necessary bearded old trapper), and Brendan Gleeson (as a passenger who sings a sad song) take their weird ride toward ... well ... you'll have to see the movie to discover where they all wind up.

The Coens have fun with the movie's language, which is florid and overdone, the formal-sounding speech of characters aspiring to -- but not always attaining -- eloquence.

For all the Coens wit and wiliness, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sometimes feels caught in the pages of the book that serves as its framing device, a dusty volume that may be a sorrowful lament for a world that has been mortally wounded and has nothing left to do but stagger toward the grave.

Creative as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs can be, I'm looking forward to seeing the Coens turn the page.

Small-town life in the Midwest

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman travels to the Midwest for Monrovia, Indiana, a telling portrait of small-town life in Donald Trump's America. Wiseman doesn't focus on characters or politics but on activities that range from planning board meetings to conversations in local cafes. He pauses between scenes to give us views of the town and the surrounding countryside. Observing without commenting, Wiseman leaves it to the audience to reach its own conclusions, even during a visit to a local gun shop. We also see scenes of hog farmers at work, of a meeting in a Masonic lodge where one of the members is being feted for 50 years of service, and of men getting haircuts at the local barbershop. Everyone seems to be subjected to the same style, shaved sides with a bit of hair left on top as a kind of tonsorial exclamation point. Wiseman concludes with a eulogy delivered by a pastor at one of the town's churches and follows that with the burial of the woman the pastor just had been eulogizing. If you're familiar with Wiseman's work -- Ex Libris: The New York Public Library and In Jackson Heights -- you know that he specializes in revealing the quotidian rhythms that dominate whatever scene he happens to be observing. I wouldn't call Monrovia one of Wiseman's best efforts, but it exemplifies an approach in which he captures various places and institutions as if he were recording for future generations. A debate about growth involving one of the town's subdivisions emerges, but mostly we feel removed from the essential concerns of the day. Still, we get the feeling that we know how the town's residents go about filling the Midwestern emptiness that surrounds them.*

*I want to reiterate that I welcome comments, particularly those that expand our knowledge about particular films or films in general. But -- and this is the point of this footnote -- I don't publish anonymous comments. Over the years, I've found that many readers have worthwhile things to say and should in no way be reluctant to take credit for their comments. So, sign your name and chime in.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

She looked into the eye of war

Rosamund Pike portrays a journalist who couldn't say no to war.
A Private War tells the real-life story of Marie Colvin's life at work. Of course, a day’s work for Colvin, an award-winning war correspondent, upsets any notion of jobs as tedious, office-bound activities. Colvin made her living reporting from some of the world's worst war zones. She lost her left eye as the result of an explosion in Sri Lanka and ultimately died in Homs, Syria.

Colvin's great achievement in Homs was to put the world on notice that Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, was not only bombing military targets but also was obliterating the city’s civilian population. Telling that story cost Colvin her life.

Directed by Matthew Heineman, previously known for documentaries, Private War quickly lays out the rationale for Colvin’s willingness to put herself in harm’s way. She argues that the world must know about the suffering bred by war. It must hear the stories of those who suffer.

Private War will be hailed for Rosamund Pike’s portrayal of Colvin, a skilled and confident reporter who couldn't escape war-born demons in the form of PTSD and alcoholism, two conditions she was unwilling to acknowledge.

Colvin wrote for the British Sunday Times but grew up in Long Island. Pike, who’s British, masters an American accent. More importantly, she captures Colvin’s no-nonsense approach to her job and her possibly self-destructive refusal to opt for safer forms of journalism even after she was forced to wear an eye patch from her Sri Lanka wounds.

At a party in London, a friend (Nikki Amuka-Bird) suggests that Colvin seek help. She can’t break through Colvin's addictive cycle: war reporting followed by troubled respites in London.

Colvin's editor (Tom Hollander) doesn't push her to take a desk job. She's too good at what she does. He jokes about her writing for the gardening section as if the only forms of journalism were those involving extreme danger and those relegated to the sleepy nether regions of feature sections.

Heineman structures the film as a series of harrowing war tours interrupted by glimpses of Pike’s life away from the battles she covered. He includes an underdeveloped relationship with Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci), a wealthy businessman who says he’s interested in sexual adventures rather than one-night stands.

Colvin maintains her strongest relationship with a freelance war photographer played by Jamie Dornan, bearded and close to unrecognizable after his work in the Fifty Shades of Grey movies. Photographer and reporter are bonded by the hardships they endure as a team.

Always eager to set her own path (she sneered at embedded journalists), Colvin knew how to stay a step ahead of other reporters as she worked in ravaged countries such as Iraq and Syria. In Libya, she interviewed Gaddafi just before his fall. She was a go-to journalist when it came to war.

Heineman and his team put a great deal of effort into making authentically vivid scenes of battle chaos, civilian suffering and the obscene destruction of war.

Like Colvin, Heineman must have wanted to drive home the brutality of wars, particularly its impact on hapless civilians. Scenes of mayhem are luridly convincing -- if a bit numbing after a while.

A Private War certainly has its virtues, but there’s something a little off about the movie: Heineman has a point to make but not much story to tell: Without people such as Colvin, however flawed she might have been as a person, blood would be shed without outside scrutiny.

That's a powerful statement, but I wondered whether it might have made a more fitting tribute to Colvin to take one of her strong stories and turn it into a movie. What made Colvin great, I think, was that she had more interest in the stories she so compulsively told than in her self. So much so that she died telling them.

A young gay man confronts conversion therapy

Lucas Hedges shines as a young man caught between his family and his sexual identity.

The skills of Lucas Hedges are on display in three highly anticipated fall movies: Mid-90s, Boy Erased and Ben is Back. In Boy Erased, the second of these movies to reach the nation's screens, Hedges plays Jared, a young gay man whose religious parents send him to conversion therapy. In Ben is Back, due in December, Hedges portrays a drug-addicted kid whose mother (Julia Roberts) desperately wants to get him off his self-destructive path.

Although his role in the skateboard movie Mid90s is a small one, Hedges -- nominated in 2016 for a best-supporting actor Oscar for Manchester by the Sea -- clearly is having a moment. He deserves it: He should be contributing to movies for a long time.

Boy Erased casts Hedges as the intriguingly conflicted Jared Eamons, a character who can't reconcile his desire to be a normal kid with this sexual inclinations. Sensitive and vulnerable, Hedges never loses touch with the essence of Jared's character: He's a kid who wants to please by doing the right thing.

Jared has been brought up in a fundamentalist Christian environment by his homemaking mother (Nicole Kidman) and his pastor father (Russell Crowe). Unrebellious by nature, Jared takes his faith background seriously.

Boy Erased focuses on what happens when Jared's parents learn that he might be gay and send him to Christian conversion therapy, something he initially approaches with the hope that it will work. Jared wants to be "cured" and he harbors no apparent ill will toward his parents.

Based on a memoir by Gerard Conley -- the model for Jared -- Boy Erased spends much of its time following Jared through conversion therapy where he's guided by Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton). Part cheerleader and part disciplinarian, Sykes bases his actions on the notion that gayness is a choice that can be unchosen with hard work and rigorous applications of faith.

Sykes is assisted by Brandon (Flea), a guy who approaches his job as if he's a drill sergeant charged with yelling the gay out of the young people who find themselves in this program.

During Jared's conversion therapy, he stays in a motel with his mother, who offers support and who watches the impact the "therapy" has on Jared.

The movie, which marks Edgerton's second directorial effort after 2015's The Gift, doesn't spend a lot of time on the other young people who have been sent to Love in Action, the program in which Jared has been enrolled. Troye Sivan plays a curly headed blonde who tells Jared that he should fake his conversion, get out of Love in Action in one piece and then decide how he wants to live. Britton Sear appears as Cameron, a kid with no ability to articulate what he's going through.

For all of its sincerity in trying to deal with the devastating impact such therapy can have on young people, the movie's most interesting and vividly drawn characters are pushed to the periphery: As Jared's mother, Kidman backs her husband in his faith decisions; she's spent her life as a supporting player in her husband's drama. Gradually, she begins to understand that her heart has room in it for two loves: God and her son.

Crowe receives less screen time but wastes none of it. A Baptist pastor who also owns a Ford dealership, Crowe's Marshall Eamons can't break through the boundaries that have defined his life. When he tells his son that he can't live in his house as a gay man, he's not threatening, he's simply stating what he sees as a bedrock fact of his existence.

Crowe has a strong final scene with Hedges that wisely refuses to resolve this difficult father/son relationship.

Boy Erased isn't the first movie this year to deal with conversion therapy. This summer saw the release of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which starred Chloe Grace Moretz as a young woman pushed into a program like the one in which Jared finds himself. That movie focused on the way Moretz's rebellious character found kindred spirits to help her survive brainwashing by people who present a friendlier front than those in Boy Erased.

Though quite different in their style and tone, both movies are credible -- if unexceptional -- dramas. The path through conversion therapy offers few surprises. Still, a high-powered cast adds distinction to Boy Erased. Kidman and Crowe do memorable work and Lucas adds another strong performance to his already impressive resume.

A reminder of Buster Keaton's greatness

Director Peter Bogdanovich expresses his love for Buster Keaton in a new documentary, The Great Buster: A Celebration. There are many reasons you might want to see Bogdanovich's fond look at a great star of the silent cinema whose career peaked in the 1920s but continued pretty much until his death in 1966. To begin with, Bogdanovich provides an outline of Keaton's showbusiness life, which began when his mother and father put him into their vaudeville act in the early 1900s. Young Joseph Frank Keaton -- reportedly named Buster by the great Harry Houdini -- quickly became a star vaudeville attraction. In a reedy voice, Bogdanovich narrates this tour through Keaton's work. He also includes interviews with Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, Bill Hader, Richard Lewis, Johnny Knoxville, and Werner Herzog. But the movie's real delights arrive in the form of clips from the two-reelers that Keaton made in the early days of Hollywood and from the 10 features in which he starred and directed during the 1920s. These well-chosen clips make for a glowing tribute to Keaton's talents and serve as a reminder of just how inventive Hollywood could be during its earliest days. Visual comedy (now a truly neglected art) was a Keaton specialty which he approached with creativity, physical daring (his stunts are truly breathtaking), and unbridled individual expression. If highlights from films such as Our Hospitality, Go West, Steambath Bill, Jr., and, of course, The General don't improve your mood, nothing will.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Literary forgery for fun and profit

Can You Ever Forgive Me? features strong performances from Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant.
She drinks enough to qualify as an alcoholic. She once enjoyed success writing biographies but recently has fallen on hard times. She's so foul-mouthed that she can't hold a regular job. She's months behind in her rent and can't afford a visit to a veterinarian for her beloved cat. No one cares that she's interested in writing a biography of Fanny Brice, the comedienne played by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.

You'd be right to think that such a character makes a perfect fit for Melissa McCarthy, an actress who has worked mostly in profane, big-screen comedies that kicked off with 2011’s Bridesmaids. Sporting a bowl-shaped haircut, minimal makeup, and a wardrobe that barely exceeds thrift-store levels, McCarthy adds a serious twist to her big-screen resume in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Playing a real-life character -- the late Lee Israel -- McCarthy makes ample use of her gift for invective but transfers it to a character mired in economic desperation and personal isolation. At a preview screening, it took a few moments for some members of the audience to realize that Can You Ever Forgive Me? intends to go for more than laughs.

Israel, who became a forger of highly collectible literary letters, lived the kind of fringe existence in Manhattan of the mid-90s that required mastery of many improvisational life skills.

Misanthropic and miserable, Lee has only one friend, a high-spirited gay man (Richard E. Grant). Grant's Jack Hock has no visible means of support but seems to survive with guile, charm and who knows what else.

Grant infuses his performance with a buoyancy that plays well against McCarthy's earth-bound qualities as a writer for whom crime becomes a means of self-expression.

Israel forged letters by Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and Lillian Hellman, mastering the art of stylistic mimicry and enlivening letters that often lacked enough spice to pique collector interest. The movie's title derives from one of Israel’s first forays into the world of crime, a postscript she attached to a letter written by Brice.

When exposure and FBI interest looms, Israel takes to stealing real letters from various archives and replacing them with her carefully crafted forgeries. With no one able to question the authenticity of the stolen letters, Israel's business continued.

Working from a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) does a good job of showing how Israel's scheme was born: She chanced upon letters by Brice and began doctoring them. Eventually, she sustained her fraud with a room full of antique typewriters.

Israel also learned to navigate the rarified world of memorabilia collecting. When she fell under suspicion, she recruited Hock to peddle her fake letters. Hock proved himself a worthy accomplice -- if a less-than-reliable apartment sitter.

Movies about con jobs long have had appeal, but Heller introduces us to a highly specialized form of fraud, one that required knowledge, skill and a genuine respect for literature. Israel took pride in being able to write like a variety of great writers. As she puts it, she was able to be more Parker than Parker herself.

Several strong supporting performances round out the movie's pleasures. Jane Curtin appears as Israel's literary agent, a woman who can't (and who won't) push Israel's Brice biography and who knows that no one wants to work with such an ill-tempered woman. Dolly Wells does a nice job as Anna, a bookstore owner who also sells memorabilia and who is awestruck to meet Israel, whose biographies of actress Tallulah Bankhead and columnist Dorothy Kilgallen she has read.

Anna Deavere Smith impresses in a brief appearance as Lee's former lover, a woman who ultimately couldn't tolerate Israel's demanding, demeaning personality. The various booksellers Israel meets during the course of her felonious activities are rendered with credibility and concision.

A straightforward treatment by Heller allows story and performance to dominate the movie. I'm not sure that there's any great moral to be drawn from all this, but Can You Ever Forgive Me? entertains right up until an end that suggests that Israel’s reformation retained trace elements of defiance. Refreshing.