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Olan Prenatt and Ryder McLaughlin in Mid90s
PHOTO BY TOBIN YELLAND
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OPENING THIS WEEK
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? The real Lee Israel, the celebrity profiler turned forger who died in 2014, was a more boastful figure than
the sad-sack recluse Melissa McCarthy plays in Marielle Heller’s sympathetic biopic, especially when methodically detailing her brief, prolific criminal spree in the early 1990s. Israel explained in interviews that she wrote biographies of women with large personalities, such as Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen, because she considered herself equally interesting. She even quoted a letter she had faked and credited to Dorothy Parker as the title of her 2008 autobiog- raphy, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty envision Israel as a serious writer who just wants to disappear into her work; McCarthy’s taciturn, seething
Lee could never hold court at a literary soirée
like master quipster Parker. Her forgeries are presented as victimless crimes because the col- lectors of authors’ personal letters she hoaxes can well afford it. The more prickly and belligerent Israel becomes — and McCarthy never burdens her with likability — the more Holofcener and Whitty soften her choices with extenuating cir- cumstances, imbuing their subject with a zeal for artistic purity at odds with her actions. Heller and cinematographer Brandon Trost encase Israel in a Manhattan of faded grandeur. In this city of lonely outsiders, Lee’s dubious friendship with Jack Hock(RichardE.Grant)ispresentedasalifeline. No one does dissolute hubris with as much charm as Grant, and his ebullience is the perfect foil to the misanthropic McCarthy. (Serena Donadoni)
GO CHARMCITYHalfwaythroughCharmCity, Marilyn Ness’ documentary of Baltimore in the af- termath of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, the camera captures downtown’s Transamerica Building and baroque City Hall as night descends, lit up and towering beyond boarded-up town- houses. It’s a stark perspective on how money and policies have failed the city’s poorest. Once
a thriving seaport and manufacturing center, Baltimore has been in many ways abandoned, its institutions and many neighborhoods in decline as a beleaguered, often corrupt police force contends with the consequences of drugs and unemployment. Viewers know some of this from HBO’s acclaimed The Wire, set in these same streets, but Ness’ film is a close-up of stubborn reality now. Daily life is wrecked by fear, stoked by shootings and death. Support is thin, so come- backs prove vulnerable. Drug dealers are em- boldened, for example, when community leader Clayton Guyton is hospitalized and the ragtag group he rallies each day to clean and monitor the streets mostly disburses. There’s still charm in Charm City, despite it all. Ness finds compassion, hard work and optimism among the police, the politicians (strikingly rising star Brandon Scott) and the people. They make some strides, cleaning up and staying calm. But anyone who cares about Baltimore should root for City Councilman Scott, who seems tired of leaving the fate of these streets to the powerless, and is stepping up with forceful ideas. (Daphne Howland)
AN EVENING WITH BEVERLY LUFF LINN While writer-director Jim Hosking’s commitment to weirdness (also seen in his previous outing, The Greasy Strangler) warrants appreciation, especially when so many others play it safe, his
latest, comedy An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn, is a chore to get through. It unfolds in a vaguely sinister world that takes its design cues from the tackiest styles of the early 1980s. Aubrey Plaza, whose doe-eyed sarcasm is so often wasted in roles in tepid comedies, plays the excellently named Lulu Danger, who escapes her oily hus- band with a man she’s just met under dubious circumstances. They’re off to see a performance by Beverly Luff Linn (Craig Robinson), an enig- matic figure from her past. All of the character psychology here is intentionally paper-thin, all part of Hosking’s funhouse world. Most of the men wear dreadful hairpieces; characters speak slowly and repeat dialogue; and the sex scenes are sleazy and lacking in intimacy. All of these elements, Luff Linn’s much-hyped performance included, feel like nails on a chalkboard. Hosking works in the mode of anti-humor, by definition an acquired taste, but for most the deadpan scato- logical jokes (see Luff Linn’s incessant grunting and farting) don’t add up to much. In theory, the pairing of Plaza and Jemaine Clement, who plays her accomplice, could be delightful. Both are able comic performers who make the polyester-heavy wardrobe work as well as they can. In practice, unfortunately, the film is so intent on creating a WTF universe that the characters register as little more than crude outlines. (Abbey Bender)
FAIL STATE The ripoff that is for-profit education is infamous — Trump University, for one, was so badly run that not even its scam could keep it afloat—butAlexShebanow’swell-paced,chock- full doc Fail State manages to be surprising and infuriating nonetheless. He tracks how private educational institutions of all sorts have for decades mined the American can-do spirit with emptypromises;howreformsmeanttoaid needy students instead sucked public colleges dry; and how bipartisan political hackery (com- mitted mostly by Republicans, foremost among them George W. Bush, but abetted by the likes
of Bill Clinton and Nancy Pelosi) shredded the regulations that restrained the worst predatory practices. Politicians shouldn’t be so gleeful: For-profit schools are essentially welfare frauds. Heaping student debt goes unpaid as their woe- fully unprepared graduates can’t find work, and taxpayers pick up the defaults. Shebanow makes his case with the help of educators, journalists and reform-minded policymakers (and executive producer Dan Rather). But the students he inter- views — a grieving mother, a traumatized vet, an African-American single mother and two highly motivated low-income men of color — lay bare the heartbreaking human cost of these corrupt schools. The predators may have finally gone too far. As the need for affordable quality education dawns on leaders along the political spectrum,
a movement for free college has sprouted. Well- supported community college is the place to start, Shebanow argues. He should know — he started at one himself. (Daphne Howland)
GALVESTON In director Mélanie Laurent’s Galveston, an uneven but arrestingly beautiful drama, a hitman and a reluctant sex worker struggle to outrun their pasts. After surviving an ambush orchestrated by his crooked boss, hitman Roy (Ben Foster) escapes on the open road with Rocky (Elle Fanning), a teenage captive who wit- nessed the attack. Both travelers play their cards close to the vest: An X-ray shows that Roy’s lungs are filled with splotches as patchy as the Spanish moss that covers most of Laurent’s vision of
FILM
THE KIDS ARE ALL ALT
Jonah Hill’s Mid90s takes an honest plunge into the millennial past
LBY KRISTEN YOONSOO KIM
argely plotless, slice-of-life dra-
masoftengetdescribedas“quiet,” yet Mid90s, the largely plotless, slice-of-life drama from Jonah Hill (his first film as writer-di-
rector), is marked by violently loud moments and blaringly time-capsuled needle drops (from The Pixies to The Pharcyde). From the first scene, we witness 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) being tossed against the wall and beaten by his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). The sound design has been crafted to shock — a smack against the chest could actually be an encyclopedia crashing against concrete. Hedges isn’t the brawny type but, next to the pint-sized Suljic, he seems to have the strength of an Olympic hammer thrower.
Ian’s abuse is a repeat offense throughout the film, mostly taking place in the claus- trophobic, green-walled abode the brothers share with their single mom (Katherine Wa- terston), who is well-meaning but at times perhaps more immature than maternal. Ste- vie’s eyes may match the green of his domestic prison but he has set those curious peepers on the world outside those walls.
Stevie finds his crew with local skaters he has observed from afar: Ray (Na-kel Smith), the cool leader of the pack; the goofy Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), nicknamed for his trademark line “fuck, shit, that was dope”; the tight- lipped documentarian called Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) to match his intelligence level; and Ruben (Gio Galicia), who is about Stevie’s age but likes to act older and cooler (“I smoke, I skate, I fuck bitches,” he declares). Stevie eventually earns the nickname “Sun- burn,” and the more he’s accepted within the group, the more jealous Ruben becomes.
Hill’s debut has drawn a lot of comparisons
to the no-filter styling of director Larry Clark, anditalsoeasilycallstomindGusVanSant’s Paranoid Park. As queasy as Clark’s Kids or Bully are, the conversations between the kids in Mid90s also prove squirm-inducing. Ho- mophobic slurs abound, and at one point, the kids consider a hypothetical question that leads to a discussion of raping their parents. In the mid-’90s, teens weren’t yet “canceling” each other for being problematic.
The depictions of drug and alcohol use, sex (Stevie getting it on with an older girl) and violence (both self-inflicted and by others) are difficult to watch, as Hill brings a fly-on-the- wall candor to his depiction of youth and the film’s era. Stevie’s idiotic ballsiness gets him a bloody head wound but it also wins respect from the older skaters, and that matters to him more, possible concussion be damned.
Hill opens up other troubling storylines but fails to address them further: the older brother’s cruelty (the source of his anger is briefly hinted at when Ian tells Stevie about their mother’s dating history); and also Ste- vie’s masochistic tendencies (he self-asphyx- iates, literally washes his mouth with soap and furiously brushes his leg as punishment).
But let’s not forget Hill’s sense of humor: Mid90s, for all its darkness, is uplifted by its hilarious moments and joyous skating shots — filmed on Super 16, set to the golden Cal- ifornian soundtrack of The Mamas & the Papas. There’s a final violent moment, when everything comes to a crash, filmed and staged for shattering effect, but even after that, the film suggests that Stevie will bounce back just fine — as he’s done before.
MID90S | Written and directed by Jonah Hill A24 | ArcLight Hollywood, Landmark
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