‘It’s Not Your Fault’: On Hanging Out and Healing in Good Will Hunting
by Roxana Hadadi on May 25, 2020 at 12:55 PM
“I know you’d rather see me gone Than to see me the way that I am.” —“Miss Misery,” Elliott Smith Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have been A-listers for decades, and they’ve done practically everything Hollywood could ask them to do. Private Ryan and Tom Ripley and Loki and Linus Caldwell and Jason Bourne and LaBoeuf and Colin Sullivan and Mark Watney and Carroll Shelby. O’Bannion and Holden McNeil and Bartleby and Shannon and Sheriff Bryce Hammond and Ned Alleyn and Rafe McCawley and Jack Ryan and Larry Gigli and Doug MacRay and Nick Dunne and Christian Wolff and Redfly and Bruce Wayne. Damon and Affleck boast careers that have sprawled across all genres, that have made them millions and garnered them constant media coverage, that have secured their status as top-tier producers and directors, and that can all be traced back to one film: 1997’s “Good Will Hunting.” Will and Chuckie. Two kids from Southie, Boston. “Good Will Hunting” isn’t an autobiographical story. Damon and Affleck both grew up fairly well off and involved in the arts. They weren’t, as far as we know, brawling with rival neighborhood gangs or crashing Harvard bars. But the childhood friends who became actors together were the magic that made “Good Will Hunting” work: their chemistry, their camaraderie, their bond. Their script was passed by director Kevin Smith to the now-convicted-and-imprisoned Harvey Weinstein. Beloved indie director Gus Van Sant came on to direct. Robin Williams, already tearing up the ‘90s with “Aladdin” and “The Birdcage,” joined the cast. Singer-songwriter Elliott Smith contributed six lovely, wistful songs to the soundtrack. The film was phenomenally successful, making more than $220 million on a budget of $10 million. At the 70th Academy Awards, with the nine nominations for “Good Will Hunting” up against the 11 for “Titanic,” Williams went home as the Best Supporting Actor and Damon and Affleck as authors of the Best Original Screenplay. The boyhood friends’ paths forward were set, and as each of their careers took off, they would intermittently appear onscreen together in the years to come. What has perhaps gotten lost in the ensuing decades, though—possibly overshadowed by Damon’s flashier work with Paul Greengrass, Ridley Scott, and Steven Soderbergh, or by Affleck’s own career as an Oscar-winning director, or by the post-“Justice League” memefication of Affleck as a public figure—is that “Good Will Hunting” is actually really damn good. Right now, when the world around us feels particularly overwhelming and the pressures of our everyday routines seem outside of our control, the healing nature of “Good Will Hunting” is a balm. The film’s poignant exploration of living and loving is soothing at any time, but especially these times—when we yearn for comfort more than ever, and when “It’s not your fault” might be exactly what we need to hear. “Good Will Hunting” is lyrically directed, efficiently written, side-splittingly funny, quietly devastating. A portrait of disaffected twentysomethings shooting the sh*t, day in and day out, in Boston’s working-class neighborhoods. Of friendship turned into brotherhood, and of the assumption that all free time is time meant to be spent together. Of unrelenting loyalty, and its companion, crushing honesty. Of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and foamy beer and drive-through burgers, bought for each other and shared with one another. Of the loneliness of certain types of knowledge, and the mirrored loneliness of not possessing it. Of the walls we build up to protect ourselves, and of the people we trust enough to help us break them down. “Everyone is uptight So come on night Everyone is gone Home to oblivion.” —“No Name #3,” Elliott Smith “Good Will Hunting” begins through a kaleidoscope: repeated reflections of weighty, leather-bound books, open to random spots and tossed aside; equations and formulas, scrawled on all sorts of surfaces, their meanings indecipherable to most of us; stacks of paper, not quite high enough to topple over, but just high enough to be hazardous. Then the mirage is punctured, and contextualized, by Will Hunting’s (Damon) reality. All of those exemplars of learning seem out of place in a rundown house with mismatched chairs in a mostly empty living room; a broken TV, a broken microwave, and broken furniture on the front lawn; and a pulled-up fence leaning precariously against the front porch. And the neighborhood of Southie, Boston, although only a few miles away from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, feels like the other side of the world. Will makes that journey every morning, and his routine rarely wavers. Best friend Chuckie (Affleck) parks his beat-up car outside Will’s house, walks to the door, and hands over a cup of coffee. Chuckie drives, Will’s spot is the passenger seat, and the other two members of their crew, mechanic Bill (Cole Hauser) and wayward Morgan (Affleck’s younger brother Casey), populate the back. They separate during the day (Chuckie to work construction, Will to the janitorial staff at MIT, Billy to his repair shop, Morgan to … wherever) and then reconvene every evening at their local dive bar. Their hang-out spots expand during the weekends: The dog-racing track. Little League games. Chuckie’s mother’s house, where they’re disgusted to realize that Morgan is masturbating in her bedroom upstairs. Batting cages, where Will and Chuckie engage in a heated back and forth over Chuckie crowding the plate. They hit on the same girls. They drink the same beer. Their stories mostly involve each other. “F**k you, you’re taking off. It’s like, 10 o’clock?” a shocked Chuckie says when Will leaves early one night. The foursome is together more than they’re apart. The backstory of their friendship comes out in bits and pieces, through allusions rather than exposition. We learn that Chuckie and Will grew up together when the foursome starts a fight with the bully who used to terrorize Will, and we understand the fierceness of Chuckie’s loyalty when he threatens Morgan to make sure he joins the brawl: “F**king go, Morgan. If you’re not out there in two f**king seconds, when they’re done, you’re next.” Van Sant slows down the ensuing melee, setting it to the soft rock hit “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty. The fists flying forward, the bodies being pushed around, Morgan’s shock when he connects with a member of the enemy gang, the splatters of blood on Will’s face as he pummels his tormenter, and his grin as they spurt onto him. The friends have done this before, and they’ll do this again. There’s an abstractness to the fight itself, but a certainty to the circumstances surrounding it. To the friends hanging out together. To wiling away their time as they can, every day growing a little bit older. To defending Will. To going wherever he goes, as much as they can follow. “With the things you could do, you won’t but you might The potential you’ll be that you’ll never see The promises you’ll only make.” —“Between the Bars,” Elliott Smith Will’s position within the friend group is singular, and it’s not just because of his unrivaled closeness with Chuckie, or because he’s the only one who leaves Southie each day for his job, or because his rap sheet is longer than anyone else’s, dotted with various instances of “assault … grand theft auto … impersonating an officer, mayhem, theft, resisting,” reads an amazed Judge George Malone (Jimmy Flynn), when Will is arrested for hitting a cop. It’s because Will can recite legal precedent from the 18th century and the U.S. Constitution verbatim, because he can speed-read all those books tossed around his otherwise sparse home, and because, as Morgan puts it, “My boy’s wicked smart.” What Affleck and Damon’s script lays out, methodically and increasingly satisfyingly, is just how “wicked smart” Will really is. In the hallowed halls of MIT, its cozy warm glow and stately brick a stark contrast to Southie’s dilapidation, Will solves an “advanced Fourier system” that to the rest of us just looks like fancy math. Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) is certain that one of his graduate students did the work—and when no one comes forward, a mystery is born. The logical next step, Lambeau figures, is another challenge, a problem that it took the prestigious Fields Medal winner and his colleagues two years to figure out. And just as easily, Will solves it, shocking Lambeau (“You can’t graffiti here” is his immediate reaction to what Will was doing on his chalkboard) and inspiring the professor to track down the young man and recruit him into further experimental mathematics work together. Once Will is pulled into Lambeau’s academic world, “Good Will Hunting” emphasizes the untenable tension between this working-class young man, his intelligence and cleverness accrued through his photographic memory and genius-level intellect and voracious consumption of library books of all types, and the erudite professor, his tenured colleagues, and their expectations of Will’s obedience. Court ordered to work as a sort of apprentice to Lambeau instead of serving time, Will knows the strangeness of his presence here (he practically rolls his eyes when Lambeau, in celebration after they solve a particularly complex problem, ruffles Will’s hair) and downplays it to Chuckie et al. He’ll entertain Lambeau’s curiosity about the depths of his ability, but he won’t let him in, won’t tolerate Lambeau’s complaints about his lateness when he’s relying on public transport to make it to MIT, won’t take seriously Lambeau’s offers of a job with think tanks or engineering firms or the National Security Agency. So many of these assertions of Will’s brainpower, and his accompanying rejections of the elitist, higher-class society Lambeau believes Will should want to join, have gained notoriety as the film’s most quotable scenes. In nearly all of these exchanges, Van Sant either shares with us Will’s perspective as he stares down unworthy challengers to himself or his friends or zooms in tightly on Will’s face as he speaks rapidly and authoritatively, making us the recipient of his missives. Will’s scolding of a first-year graduate student at a Harvard bar, when Will calls the guy out for using plagiarized theories to try and embarrass Chuckie, switches back and forth between Will and the “barney.” Van Sant steadily moves us closer and closer to Will as he delivers his de facto mission statement on how the Ivy League relies on exclusion to maintain their prestige, letting us into headspace and inviting us onto his side: Will: “The sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One: don’t do that. And two: You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f----n’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.” Clark: “Yeah, but I will have a degree. And you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-through on our way to a skiing trip.” Will: “Yeah, maybe. Yeah, but at least I won’t be unoriginal. By the way if you have a problem with that, I mean, we could just step outside and we could figure it out.” Later that night, after Will gets the phone number of Skylar (Minnie Driver), the woman Clark was trying to impress, his “How ya like them apples?” allows him to further embarrass the Harvard student and assert his own worthiness and his place alongside Chuckie, Bill, and Morgan. Weeks after, when Will bails on a job interview set up by Lambeau, Chuckie—in an amusingly tiny suit and his hair slicked back, a purposefully mocking mimicry of the moneyed—goes in his stead, swindling a “retainer” out of the interviewers. And when Will decides to finally tolerate one of Lambeau’s meetings, it’s with the NSA, a scene in which Van Sant relies on a smash cut to provide impact to Will’s criticism of the government agency. Filmed in one uninterrupted take, Will’s tirade gives voice to a deep distrust and resentment of American institutions, fueled by Will’s sense of himself as a member of the left-behind working class. “Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll take a shot,” Will starts, before delivering an increasingly pointed answer about U.S. interference in the Middle East and North Africa, the overuse of military force, the volatility of oil prices, the corruption of private industry, and the complacency of the federal government. “So what did I think? I’m holdin’ out for somethin’ better. I figure f**k it, while I’m at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.” “Situations get f**ked up and turned around sooner or later And I could be another fool or an exception to the rule They want you or they don’t Say yes.” —“Say Yes,” Elliott Smith The first person to call Will on any of this—to question how he wields his knowledge as a weapon, and hides behind the work of others rather than taking a chance on himself—is the court-mandated psychologist Will starts seeing in tandem with his meetings with Lambeau. After rejecting a slew of therapists from Lambeau’s world, mocking their work, and questioning their sexuality, Will acquiesces to meetings with Professor Sean Maguire (Williams), who teaches at a local community college, wears a well-loved Boston Red Sox bomber jacket, and was Lambeau’s freshman-year roommate at MIT. Their initial meeting is defined by the same sort of smart-aleck standoffishness that Will has used, for years, to his advantage, but it’s Sean’s volatility—how he chokes Will for mocking Sean’s dead wife, and Sean’s accompanying grief—that intrigues the younger man. Van Sant and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier show us the damage inflicted by Will by mirroring the composition of a painting in Sean’s office, an image he created of a man navigating his tiny rowboat through a coming storm, with a glimpse inside Sean’s home. Dirty dishes stacked in a sink. A bottle of whisky on his dining room table, and a glass already half-drunk. Shot from below, a despondent Sean, with sounds of crashing waves and seagulls ringing in his ears, looks like he’s struggling mightily with something. Like he’s trying to keep from drowning. At their next meeting, how Sean defends himself from Will’s attacks by unapologetically sharing his own life experiences, from Vietnam to his decades-long marriage, sets the rhythm of their sessions moving forward. “Your move, chief,” Sean says, and his return shot pushes their relationship past a “staring contest between two kids from the neighborhood.” There is a warmth to Sean Maguire that only Williams, tapping into the same mixture of gentleness and forlornness as his performance in “Dead Poets Society,” can provide, and he imbues these scenes with it. Sean shares stories about his life, about his wife, about how they fell in love. He talks about his father, the sacrifices his working-class family made so that he could go to MIT, his attempt to reconcile his Southie upbringing with the more privileged lives of his classmates, like Lambeau. He asks Will about Skylar, about Chuckie. But “What do you want to do?” is a question Will won’t answer, or perhaps can’t answer. Each 5 p.m. appointment has the broad strokes of two friends hanging out, and when Sean nudges against that—reminding Will that the point of therapy isn’t for them to only exchange friendly banter, but for Will to try and reach a deeper level of understanding about himself—Will explodes. A similar dynamic builds between Will and Skylar, the Harvard undergraduate Will met at the bar—an affection deepened by time spent together, and undermined by Will’s difficulty with honesty. They go on dates and start sleeping together while he keeps her from Chuckie, Morgan, and Bill. “Is it me you’re hiding from them, or the other way around?” Skylar wonders, and when they finally meet at the group’s local bar, Will’s anxiety is obvious. These are his closest friends are the world, and his only family. Will they approve of her? Will she approve of them? Her “filthy” joke about a married couple celebrating their 50th anniversary with a blow job and a follow-up kiss lands, with Van Sant panning to each friend to document their delighted reaction, and Will’s relieved smile being the most prominent. Yet Chuckie’s endorsement means little when Skylar, leaving for Stanford Medical School, asks Will to accompany her to California. Until that point, the lovers have danced around their class divide—Skylar, with her posh British accent and her inheritance; Will, with his one collared shirt and his work boots—with Skylar teasingly describing her boyfriend as “someone like you … someone who divides their time fairly evenly between batting cages and bars.” When the possibility of a real future together comes up, one that involves Will leaving Southie, he balks. When Skylar asks if he loves her, he refuses. “Don’t tell me about my world,” Will rages, and the reality is that he hasn’t been particularly honest—not about being an orphan, growing up in various foster homes, or suffering shocking abuse. But he has no answer for Skylar’s parrying “That’s my life, and I deal with it.” Will would rather be alone, and leave behind someone who truly love him, than be himself. “I can make you satisfied in Everything you do All your secret wishes could right Now be coming true.” —“Angeles,” Elliott Smith “Good Will Hunting” is interspersed with moments of gauzy sentimentality for the type of masculine loyalty that Will, Chuckie, Bill, and Morgan live by—for their “shenanigans, tomfoolery, ballyhoo,” as described by one of Will’s rejected therapists. With dawn just breaking, the men look out the window as Chuckie drives back from the Harvard bar to their industrialized, non-gentrified neighborhood. The camera pivots inside the car to take in each man’s profile, the texture of the film grain evident in the soft light. The men were aware of their otherness in Cambridge, but operated as a united front against it. A similar acknowledgment of the disparity between these universities and the cities surrounding them is demonstrated during Will’s train rides back and forth. He’s often alone, watching the landscape outside change, growing more developed toward MIT and the people he doesn’t to be around, and more barren back to Southie and the people he does. Just as Sean stunned Will into silence, though, with his query about what Will envisions for himself, so does Chuckie. The brother in arms, the “retarded gorilla” who would take a baseball bat to anyone for Will, the consigliere who gets Will a job on a demolition crew after his work with Lambeau ends, puts aside the braggadocio bullshit to bare his deepest desire to Will. The result is a quiet reversal of the film’s entire perspective. Our sympathy is no longer devoted entirely to Will, to a young man who so desires a “normal” life, but also extends to Chuckie, the best friend who must finally speak his piece. Chuckie knows what “normalcy” can be, and he resents the patronizing way Will has coveted it. Will: “Oh, come on! Why is it always this, I mean, I f**kin’ owe it to myself to do this? Why if I don’t want to?” Chuckie: “Alright. No. No no. F**k you. You don’t owe it to yourself. You owe it to me. ’Cause tomorrow I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be fifty and I’ll still be doing this shit. And that’s all right, that’s fine. I mean, you’re sittin’ on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in. And that’s bullshit ’cause I’d do anything to f**kin’ have what you got. So would any of these f**kin’ guys. It’d be an insult to us if you’re still here in twenty years. Hanging around here is a f**kin’ waste of your time.” Will: “You don’t know that.” Chuckie: “I don’t?” Will: “No. You don’t know that.” Chuckie: “Oh, I don’t know that. Let me tell you what I do know. Every day I come by to pick you up. And we go out we have a few drinks and a few laughs and it’s great. But you know what the best part of my day is? It’s for about ten seconds from when I pull up to the curb to when I get to your door. Because I think maybe I’ll get up there and I’ll knock on the door and you won’t be there. No goodbye, no see you later, no nothin’. Just left. I don’t know much, but I know that.” Throughout “Good Will Hunting,” Will is barraged by what others want from him, from Lambeau complaining that Will’s drinking and hanging out with his friends will waste his talent, to Sean prompting him toward a career choice that would fulfill him, to Skylar asking him to move with her across the country. But it’s Chuckie’s admission, and how out of character he is during that speech—his forlornness, and his finality—that sticks with Will. This isn’t his best friend who struts around in an endless array of flashy tracksuits, or relentlessly mocks Morgan, or flirts with any woman who will give him the time of day. This Chuckie is aware of his own mortality, of the exact trajectory and plateau his life will take, and he’s already tired. Chuckie’s rejection of Will’s insistence that the only honorable work is the back-breaking monotony of physical labor is what finally pushes him toward a different sort of life, and sets the next series of events in motion. Sean’s breakthrough with Will, and the transformative power of his repeated “It’s not your fault.” Will’s return home, the train tracks unfurling ahead of him, his future uncertain. His final meeting with Sean, and the older man’s parting advice: “You do what’s in your heart, son. You’ll be fine.” And his 21st birthday celebration with Chuckie, Bill, and Morgan, when they surprise him with his own car, a menagerie of scrounged castoffs compiled into something usable that they all worked on together. The car’s components had been through hell, but it would still run, Bill swears. It still has purpose. The film’s final moments, then, are devoted not to the kind of knowledge that Will already possessed. The math proof he burned in front of Lambeau remains as ash. His clinical analysis of Sean’s painting is forgiven by the mentor who eventually broke through his walls. What comes next is the self-actualization we’ve seen Will grow over time, and the confidence to strike out on his own. All those years with Chuckie, Bill, and Morgan, the boys who grew alongside him into men, and who never left his side. That bond with Sean, who saw past Will’s brashness and gave him another chance. Hanging out as healing—and healing as letting go. When Will quotes Sean back to him, saying he’s going to “see about a girl,” and when he tells Chuckie nothing at all. The half-grin that spreads across Chuckie’s face when he looks into Will’s empty house, and when he shrugs to Bill and Morgan, “He’s not there.” And Will’s car on the open road, the shot wider than the film’s preceding visual style to include as much verdant greenery and endless asphalt as possible. Will venturing into the unknown, far from Southie and Cambridge both. 23 years after its release, “Good Will Hunting” is a melancholy, affecting thing. Singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, who contributed so much to the soundtrack, killed himself in 2003. His performance at the 70th Academy Awards, sparse and sad and so unlike the overly produced awards shows to come, feels like a cultural artifact that can never be recreated. Like so many of Smith’s songs, “Miss Misery,” written for “Good Will Hunting”—which lost to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”—regarded his bouts of depression and addiction with a combination of fondness and wariness. Eleven years later, Robin Williams would take his own life, too. For millennials like me who grew up on Williams’ films—“Hook” and “Aladdin” and “Ferngully,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “The Birdcage” and “Jumanji”—it was a particularly gutting loss. I wept when I heard the news, and I reached for my “Good Will Hunting” Blu-ray. During these past few months, as the coronavirus pandemic has perhaps forever changed how we live, I’ve reached for it again. Sean’s “It’s not your fault” was restorative then, still is now, and remains an eternal reminder of Williams’s evocative energy as an actor. The catharsis provided by Damon and Affleck’s best film has gotten more bittersweet with time, but it hasn’t faded. “F**k them, OK?” Sean had said to Will of his abusers and his doubters, his curse a comfort on every subsequent rewatch of “Good Will Hunting,” a film whose healing message makes clear its current relevance.
Anna Kendrick Can't Hold Flimsy Love Life Together
by Allison Shoemaker on May 25, 2020 at 12:54 PM
It’s inevitable that HBO Max’s “Love Life” will be compared to “Sex and the City.” Like its forebear, this half-hour romantic dramedy from creator Sam Boyd (“In a Relationship”) concerns itself primarily with the romantic and sexual life of its protagonist, with the hope of approaching both with a combination of starry-eyed dreaminess and startling frankness. As with that earlier series, the protagonist in question is played by a winning musical theater veteran with a great head of hair. (It must be said that Anna Kendrick is much better at crying on camera than Sarah Jessica Parker ever was.) Here too there are charismatic friends who offer advice over alcohol; there’s even plenty of voiceover, ready to tie things up in a tidy thematic bow, though in this case, the voice belongs to an omniscient and mellifluous Lesley Manville, rather than our protagonist. But as I made my way through the first season of the flagship of HBO Max’s initial slate, I couldn’t help but wonder: It has sex, and there’s a city, but why is it that “Love Life” feels so devoid of both love and life? (Go ahead and groan; I did as I wrote it.) Frustratingly, it’s what “Love Life” lacks when stacked against its predecessor that most defines it: Carrie Bradshaw is a person, and Darby Carter is a premise. This anthology series, executive produced by Paul Feig and Kendrick with co-showrunners Boyd and Bridget Bedard (“Transparent”), has an engaging enough conceit: It’s meant to follow one person per season from their first love to their last. For Darby (Kendrick), who moved to New York to “find herself” and then found herself an impossibly cool career and an apartment that’s just impossible, that journey begins with Augie (Jin Ha of “Devs”) and moves on through a predictable stable of guys (and only guys)—there’s the handsome older man, the charismatic user, the hot dum-dum who isn’t boyfriend material, the high school crush with whom she unexpectedly reconnects, the list goes on. Then there are the loves of her life beyond romance: her parents (James LeGros and a predictably excellent Hope Davis), and her friends and roommates Sara (series standout Zoë Chao), Mallory (Sasha Compère, appallingly underutilized), and Sara’s boyfriend Jim (Peter Vack). And that’s about it. She has a brother, and the occasional co-worker, and for one far too brief stretch a therapist, but Darby’s life is unavoidably defined by her romances in the eyes of both the character and the writers. In both cases, it’s a mistake that’s deeply damaging. “Love Life” is far from the first story to follow a person who has centered her own life on the pursuit of romantic love, nor is it the first to acknowledge that she’s doing so, to her detriment. (For a much, much better example, see The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which is also considerably filthier—quite a feat, considering the network in question.) “Love Life” makes the mistake of doing the same, and that’s apparent from the first hour. That it recovers at all is due mainly to Kendrick, an immensely engaging performer who not only convincingly ages Darby year by year but who also manages to make up for the show’s total disinterest in her life outside her romantic pairings—I promise you, Kendrick is far more intrigued by Darby’s career in art and antiquities than Boyd and Bedard ever were. It’s also helpful that she could evidently conjure chemistry with a paper bag, as her scenes with all the men in her life attest, particularly those with John Gallagher, Jr. (though Ha and Scoot McNairy also stand out). But even Kendrick’s considerable talent and skill can’t make up for the show’s overall flimsiness. It’s a real problem that “Love Life” has more in common with Amazon’s anthology “Modern Love” than it does with shows like “Girls,” Hulu’s “High Fidelity, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” or “Jane the Virgin.” There’s precious little that connects these romances to each other, save Darby and New York City. If that sounds backward, if it seems like there should be no need to link them because they’re all part of Darby’s story, then congratulations, you have arrived at precisely the problem with “Love Life.” Despite Kendrick’s best efforts, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is simply a collection of short stories in which the same person happens to figure, without any connective tissue. With one exception, it’s difficult to see how she learns, grows, and is scarred by these pairings, but nor is this a story of how she’s doomed to repeat old patterns over and over again. She’s just there, and the show happens to her. The exception, a two-part story split down the middle by the requisite protagonist-goes-to-therapy episode, hints at what a show that cared more about Darby than the conceit could offer. “Magnus Lund Pt. 1” and “Magnus Lund Pt. 2” track one of the longer and more substantial relationships in Darby’s life; rather than conversations about how long she should wait to hear from a guy before texting or whether it’s right to lie to a one-night-stand to avoid rejecting them, the discussions here are about debt, honesty, emotional manipulation, loneliness, cruelty, and the difficulty of acknowledging that something has died. The subjects allow, mercifully, for more substantial scenes with her friends—more on that in just a minute—but more importantly, it gives Darby an internal struggle, rather than a track to follow. It’s a messier, thornier, and infinitely more interesting series. A pity it only lasts two episodes. Those successes underline the most apparent symptom of the sickness at the heart of “Love Life,” and the element with which the “Sex and the City” comparison begins to fall apart: If Darby isn’t a rich character, then the people in her life are little more than sketches, and that’s a huge problem, especially with her friends. As with our heroine, it’s possible to catch glimpses of what might have been: an episode centered on her mother suddenly crystallizes when Davis winds up on her own briefly, a largely wordless sequence that suddenly opens the character up in a new way and draws a line from mother to daughter; while Mallory remains a non-entity for most of the series, Sara manages to be compelling, both because she occasionally gets a scene or two to herself and through the sheer force of Chao’s personality. No one would argue that “Sex and the City” was an insightful work of towering genius in each and every episode, but there’s a reason people defined themselves as a “Samantha” or a “Charlotte” or a “Miranda” for years. “Sex and the City” may have been Carrie’s show, but those friendships were more important than the men ever were. They weren’t simply faces at whom the protagonist could talk. Not every series needs to be defined by its friendships. But if “Love Life” wants to succeed, it’s got to do one of two things in future, and preferably both: It can make us care about the protagonist so much that we don’t need her to have a full life populated by developed characters, or it can bother to care about those characters, too. In doing neither, it’s as doomed as one of Darby’s relationships—and will probably last about as long, too. Eight episodes screened for review.
Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich
by Brian Tallerico on May 25, 2020 at 12:54 PM
A review of “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” needs to open with a reminder of one Roger Ebert’s most essential beliefs: It’s not what a movie is about but how it is about it. The subjects of this Netflix documentary are all correctly credited as “Survivors,” heroic women coming forward to discuss the times they were raped, abused, and trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein. Their testimonies are heartbreaking, and every single one of them is brave to go on camera and talk about the worst days of their lives. That’s undeniable. However, their courage alone doesn’t shape “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” into an accomplished documentary. If anything, the doc leaves them hanging, accompanying their testimonies with poor filmmaking and a lack of context or attempt to really dig into how Epstein continued what one person refers to as a “Molestation Pyramid Scheme.” This documentary barely skims the surface of its subject, alternating its energy between the legal strategies to prosecute/defend Epstein, and the aforementioned personal stories. In the end, I don’t feel like I learned anything from “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” beyond horrific details. There’s a great movie to be made that incorporates these human stories into the big picture of who enabled Epstein and how we’ve created a society that allowed a monster to essentially commit his crimes in plain sight. This isn’t quite that movie or series. Director Lisa Bryant adopts an approach not dissimilar to “Leaving Neverland” or “Surviving R. Kelly,” allowing the survivors to reclaim their narrative from the news stories that too often focus on the perpetrator instead of the survivor. For three hours, you’ll hear story after story of abject evil. These women were just children when they somehow entered the web of Epstein and his enabler Ghislaine Maxwell, who comes off here like a Renfield bringing new victims to her Count Dracula. She recruited the girls that Epstein would hire as assistants or masseuses and then rape. And Epstein and Maxwell would encourage these victims to bring in new girls, often paying them to bring classmates after school. They then bullied their victims into silence—one even asserts Maxwell basically threatened their life. There’s more than one story in “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” of sisters who were both abused by Epstein, and every one of them will break your heart. We underestimate the courage it takes to speak in front of the world about the worst day of your life. “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” jumps back and forth in time, often returning to depositions with Epstein, in which he asserted his Fifth Amendment rights every single time, even as prosecutors tried to get under his skin with increasingly aggravating questions—at one point they even ask about his oval-shaped penis to see if they can get any kind of response. Other than an interview with a talk radio show, these depositions are pretty much all we get of Epstein. His story is told by others, including neighbor (and producer here) James Patterson and attorney Alan Dershowitz, who never turned down an offer to be in a spotlight, even one that casts light on his dubious morals. This scattershot life story approach fills in some details about lies Epstein told early in his life, including that he graduated college, but it's like looking at Epstein from outside his gated property. Of course, it’s possible that we can never really “understand” someone like Epstein, but "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich" tries with some of its interviews. One of the most interesting interviews comes from a man who worked on Epstein’s notorious island, where he took underage girls, and I suspect that we will get more eyewitness accounts and whistleblowers in the future from people who were there. For the morbidly curious, infamous Epstein friends Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Harvey Weinstein, and Prince Andrew are all mentioned, although the presidents don’t have anything criminal in their sphere—in fact, one subject asserts that a trip to Africa that included Clinton saw Epstein actually on his best behavior, even in private. Andrew and Harvey don't make out as well. While each of the women in “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” demands your attention, I wished their stories were part of a deeper study of the insidious, protective nature of wealth, and in a film or series that didn’t linger over massage tables or bathrooms in a way that starts to feel exploitative. There are monsters in this world, but few were allowed to fulfill their monstrosity with such reckless abandon as Epstein, a friend to world leaders and celebrities, some of whom had to know what he was doing. I couldn’t help think while watching “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” that there must be another Epstein right now behaving in a similar manner. How do we dismantle the systems that are currently allowing that Epstein to continue? I think the creators of “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” would argue that the first step is to listen to the stories of what really happened, and that’s not wrong, of course. I just wish I got a better sense from this docuseries that anyone had any idea what to do next. Premieres on Netflix Wednesday, 5/27.
Five Awe-Inspiring Things About Michael Jordan and The Last Dance on Christy Lemire's Breakfast All Day Podcast
by Chaz Ebert on May 22, 2020 at 7:44 PM
Recently, I had the pleasure of being a guest of Christy Lemire on her Breakfast All Day podcast. She is currently a contributing film critic at Rogerebert.com, and also previously served as a co-host of "Ebert Presents At the Movies." Usually she joins her co-hosts Alonso Duralde and Matt Atchity discussing films, but being a true sports fan, Christy got caught up in the latest episodes of ESPN's hugely popular docuseries "The Last Dance," chronicling the six-time world champion Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. Of course, my Chicago Bulls were led by the still-unmatched Michael Jordan and coach Phil Jackson. Although I have no extensive sports knowledge, other than being a Chicagoan who is obsessed by the championship Bulls, the 1985 Super Bowl Bears, the 2016 World Series Cubs, and the Black Hawks, like everyone else, Christy invited me to recall those golden years. The episode I guested on ostensibly covers the final two episodes of the 10-part series, but we spoke randomly about things that occurred all throughout the series. Though our conversation can only be viewed by subscribing to the Breakfast All Day Patreon page, I've decided to share five awe-inspiring facts about Jordan and the Bulls and The Last Dance that I still find fascinating. However, I encourage you to support Christy's podcast with a subscription. 1. Two really important women in Michael Jordan's life stayed behind the scenes but were instrumental in giving him the stability to go out on the court with laser focus to be his best self: his former wife Juanita Jordan and his mother Deloris Jordan. Juanita was beautiful inside and out, as well as modest, sweet and shy. Both Juanita and Mrs. Jordan quietly took care of helping Michael contribute to many charities and causes in Chicago. In the photograph above, my late husband Roger and I are speaking with Michael and Deloris during an event for the James Jordan Boys and Girls Club and Family Life Center. Roger and I served on the advisory board of directors of the center named in honor of Michael's father to give back to the community on the Westside of Chicago. 2. Until watching "The Last Dance," I had forgotten about the toxicity of the relationship between Jordan and Isaiah Thomas. A little background; before Jordan came on the scene, Thomas was our hometown Chicago basketball hero, as exemplified in Steve James' classic documentary, "Hoop Dreams." In the film, Arthur Agee and William Gates aspired to be like Thomas, and they were even recruited to play ball at St. Joseph Academy, the Catholic school that Isaiah attended. Thomas probably would have liked to play for the Bulls, but he was recruited by the Detroit Pistons where he made his name. I imagine it rubbed Thomas the wrong way when Jordan came in and got all the attention, but I don't pretend to know what transpired between them to sour their relationship so. All I know is that the bitterness of the competitive intensity between Jordan and Thomas came back full force watching "The Last Dance." If I had a magic wand, I would broker a truce between them. If opposing political pundits James Carville and Mary Matalin can be husband and wife, why can't Michael Jordan and Isaiah Thomas be friends? 3. In Chicago, we called Phil Jackson the Zen Master. He was much beloved and the best coach we could have asked for. What I found interesting about "The Last Dance" was seeing Jackson's rather hippyish background and his interest in esoteric things. In conversations with him, I found him highly intelligent and a good listener. He had a reputation for being a deep thinker. He obviously was a good observer of what made people tick because he was able to understand the psyche of both Jordan and Dennis Rodman, and he knew how to motivate his players. I still can't understand why Jerry Krause felt the need to chase Phil away from Chicago. But a good thing for the Lakers that he did because they went on to win five rings. Jackson had a wide range of interests. In 1992 he, along with Roger, participated in a fundraiser called "Chicago Stories" where they wrote plays to be performed by professional actors at the Victory Gardens Theater. The big surprise for everyone was that Jackson's play was about education and family rather than basketball. In "The Last Dance," before all the players dispersed after their last championship, he had them participate in a ceremony where they wrote their fears and hopes on paper and then burned the paper in a sacred fire. Could this be a remnant of his visit to the Golden Door Spa? Phil Jackson in "The Last Dance."4. Michael Jordan and the six-time-champion Bulls team helped to change the international image of Chicago for the better! Prior to Jordan, whenever I travelled internationally, whether to France or Spain, England or Italy, the word "Chicago" would elicit a parody of a machine gun going rat-a-tat-tat, followed by the name "Al Capone." Ay! It was much nicer to have our city associated with Michael Jordan, and Siskel & Ebert and Oprah. In fact, the whole Dream Team representing America during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona gave an overall uplift to the image of American athletes that turned them into de facto ambassadors for our country. When Michael Jordan returned to the Bulls after leaving to play baseball, it was a global story! I remember watching a press conference where an economist had charts showing how Jordan's presence influenced billions of dollars in the world economy. I had never seen such a thing. 5. And speaking of Siskel & Ebert, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were obsessed with the movies, but they were also avid basketball fans. It is not widely known that Roger started out as a sports reporter before he became a film critic. Siskel frequently had floor seats at the Bulls games in Chicago, just as Jack Nicholson had them at Laker Games in Los Angeles, and Spike Lee had them at Knicks games in New York. One year, when Roger and I were at the Cannes Film Festival, he and Spike Lee were talking trash about the upcoming Bulls vs Knicks game. Spike arranged to get sponsors to broadcast the game by satellite. Julie Sisk of the American Pavilion brought in giant monitors so we could all watch the game in real time at about 2 or 3 am in France. Somehow the room organically divided between Bulls fans on one side and Knicks fans on the other. When the Knicks pulled off a win in the last minute of the game, Spike jumped up on a table and did a victory dance. It was mad fun. Watch here Roger and Gene's enthusiasm while reviewing Jordan's 1996 blockbuster "Space Jam," in which both critics state that the basketball phenom could potentially have a career in the movies... I will leave you with the above snapshot of fun times at Michael's birthday party...
The Heart Beats Differently When You’re in Character: Connie Nielsen on Inheritance
by Nell Minow on May 22, 2020 at 12:37 PM
"Inheritance" stars Lily Collins as the daughter of a powerful, wealthy, and controversial man named Asher (Patrick Warburton) who dies suddenly at the beginning of the film. He leaves his daughter a key that leads her to some (literally) long-buried family secrets. Her mother is played by Connie Nielsen, who spoke with RogerEbert.com about how speaking eight languages helps her to create characters, what she learned from Ridley Scott, and what she and her children have been watching at home. We're going to be careful to avoid spoilers here, so just generally, tell me about your character, who we first see hearing her late husband's will, which treated the two children very differently. My character is a very stoic kind of woman, somebody who is used to being around strong-willed men, including her husband, and I think she just decides that she’s going to handle that by herself, and take care of business the way it’s supposed to be, and change whatever wrong has been made. A simple black dress, a simple structured jacket, staying in very simple tones, very simple cuts. And I just did the hair in a very classic bob, and injected a certain steeliness, because she’s an ex-lawyer, and she has this steely reserve that she has used to overcome trauma, and to overcome, and the difficulties of living with a controlling kind of husband. You are fluent in eight languages. How does being polylingual help you as an actress? Well first of all, it allows me to work in many different cultures. I am Danish originally, and I’ve had this awesome experience of being able to work in Italian, in French, in English, and also to shift between many different American accents as well. I’ve done Chicago, Boston Brahmin, I’ve done Southern and Louisiana, I’ve done Florida, I’ve done all these different accents, and that has been a lot of fun. Changing languages and accents is in fact like a physical experience. It is definitely something where I allow my body to feel it. It almost feels as if the heart beats differently when you’re in character. It’s just a different rhythm. There’s a powerful moment in the movie where you tell your daughter, "The mistakes your father made are my burden, not yours." You evoke such a sense of shared history. It was just so easy with Lily, because she’s such an intuitive actor. She just digs in emotionally, and accesses these reserves of emotion within her in a very direct and beautiful way. I really enjoyed working with Lily, and it wasn’t difficult for us at all, I think, to make that shift as soon as we went into the scene. You have, as you said, worked in a lot of different countries, and with a lot of different directors. Which director has taught you the most? I guess it would have to be Ridley Scott. It had to do with teaching me the way in which he was bringing an energy from one side of the screen to another side of the screen. I learned a lot about camera work when I was watching Ridley shoot during that whole film ["Gladiator"]. I tried to hide close by the director’s group so I could see what was happening and what they were doing, and it was just such a great learning experience. The same thing happened with Susanne Bier on "Brothers," because again, here was an actual technical innovation of the medium, because we were using all handheld cameras, and it was very much during Dogme. Even though it wasn’t explicitly part of the Dogme experiment, we were using all of those learned lessons from Dogme in that film, and the experience and the freedom of that was just so intoxicating. I think on "Wonder Woman," I just took the time to really work with the stunt people and the stunt director as well, to see how I could maximize selling a physical gesture in the film, without letting go of the purity of the feeling, of the emotion, in fact, many times feeling that the actual actions of the character just enhance that point of departure as well. How has the experience of being sheltered been for you? I have a couple of really grown kids, and having had them home has been just amazing. I also have been living between two houses with my kids, because my youngest, I share custody with his dad. Seeing how our families have collaborated and how we’ve been respectful of each house’s needs and preferences, and been able to collaborate across all this stress, and at the same time having the grown up kids home for this long period, and really getting back to that almost intimacy of childhood, even though they are now adults out in the world, has been this unexpected gift. Now they’ve all started going back to work and back to the various places, and I will cherish that memory of quarantine with them. We have revisited all of my grown up kids’ favorite movies to make a sort of informal movie history series, for my youngest son. We’ve seen all of the "Mad Max" movies, we’ve seen all of the '90s teen movies like "Orange County." We’ve just had a real ball going through relatively old movies, and then not-so-old movies, and then discussing afterwards: what was the point of this film? What did it do back in the day when it came out, and what did it mean? Especially "Mad Max." Then we saw the latest one, ["Mad Max: Fury Road"], after that. It’s just such amazing filmmaking. And then you can see which films have aged well and which haven’t, and it’s just been fantastic to do that. My heart goes out to all of the families who’ve had to struggle throughout this time, both financially and medically. I really would like us to take a moment, maybe when the worst of this is over, to just revisit the systems with which we keep each other safe, whether it’s the medical systems or the financial systems. Are we keeping everyone safe, you know, and if we’re not, what can we do to change that? "Inheritance" is available on VOD today, 5/22.
by Brian Tallerico on May 22, 2020 at 12:37 PM
Lance Armstrong is a study in whether or not one can hold two competing thoughts in their head about a person at the same time. On one side of the human ledger, Armstrong wasn’t just a man who violated the rules of his sport, but one who bullied and attempted to destroy anyone who blew the whistle on him. On the other side, his work with cancer awareness and patient navigation through Live Strong has undeniably saved thousands of lives. The brilliance of Marina Zenovich’s “Lance,” which airs in two parts on ESPN this Sunday night and next week, is how keenly it illustrates this angel-demon dynamic of its subject, spotlighting how both of them live in the same person. Everyone who watched the “The Last Dance” for the last five weeks on the sports network that no longer has sports to air owes it to themselves to watch “Lance,” another study of a man often called a bully, often called a hero, and who is endlessly fascinating. The main difference between the two is one of access/control. Several people have commented on how much “The Last Dance” leans into hagiography, and how Michael Jordan himself clearly controlled the entire narrative. (Ken Burns went as far as to say it’s not really a documentary.) "Lance" is not a puff piece, but Zenovich is too smart to turn it into a direct hit piece either. “Lance” opens with ESPN journalist Bonnie Ford talking about how she would be surprised if Lance Armstrong didn’t try to shape the narrative in Zenovich’s film. The genius of the film is that Zenovich then essentially leans into that, allowing Armstrong the freedom to at least think he’s controlling the story. She opens the film with Lance telling a story about a bunch of guys at a bar who shouted “f**k you” at him. It’s a tone-setter in that Armstrong talks about how a younger version of him would beat the guys up, but a more mature Armstrong paid for their drinks and made sure the bartender told them he did it with love. He thinks this example shows his maturity and how he essentially got the upper hand through benevolence. He doesn’t pause to consider the fact that a bunch of guys hated him enough to shout profanities at him. Or that it will happen for the rest of his life. Zenovich is a master at allowing her subject just enough rope to hang himself, letting Lance tell his own stories in a way that illuminate his selfish, shallow perspective. He may be crafting the narrative, but Zenovich is revealing the truth embedded in how he crafts that narrative. “Lance” proceeds chronologically for most of its runtime, returning to interviews with Armstrong and other major players to tell his life story. And so we get the expected chapters about his early childhood, teen mother, abusive father figures, and his early days in sports, but even these are tinged with what we know is going to come. For example, Terry Armstrong, Lance’s one-time stepfather, openly suggests that whipping his son gave him the drive to be a champion before pausing to consider if it also gave him a dangerous “succeed at all costs” worldview. I usually come down on chronological docs, but “Lance” isn’t traditional in that sense. Not only is Armstrong a forthcoming and compelling interview subject, but everything feels subtly placed in the context of the overall picture of his life. Do not come to “Lance” expecting an open-armed quest for forgiveness or understanding. Armstrong understands that a lot of people are like those guys who yelled at him at the bar and will never forgive or attempt to understand what he did. And Armstrong is still stubborn in the manner in which he blames others for his downfall, especially Floyd Landis. He’s not here for your forgiveness and he fully believes he’s been thoroughly punished. At one point, he argues that he’s paid for his sins because of all the endorsements he lost and the lawsuits he faced. As someone points out, that’s like believing you paid your dues after robbing a bank because you had to give the money back. And that’s the line Zenovich walks throughout her film, allowing us to see Armstrong in all his intricacies. The truth is that Armstrong’s doping shouldn’t diminish what he’s done for cancer research, but his cancer research shouldn’t excuse his doping. In the end, “Lance” allows a deeper understanding of this very complex public figure, someone who did an amazing amount of good in the world but also fell hard from one of the greatest heights in sports history. Bonnie Ford may be right that Armstrong tries to write his own story in "Lance," but Zenovich never takes her hand off the pen. Airs on ESPN on 5/24 and 5/31.
Criterion Releases Wonderful Box Set of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales
by Brian Tallerico on May 22, 2020 at 12:37 PM
Every few months, Criterion releases box sets that serve as their own sort of home film classes. Whether it’s the massive collection for Ingmar Bergman, Godzilla, or the upcoming release of Agnes Varda’s work, these are not merely collections of films but volumes that include supplemental material designed to enhance one’s appreciation of the work being studied. They allow a deep dive into their subject matter in way that’s honestly better than I got at my small college when it came to film study classes. The latest is an excellent set six Eric Rohmer movies, collected under the banner of “Six Moral Tales.” All six films were produced in the span of 1963 to 1972, an essential decade in filmmaking history. Watching them together in one set, as I have in the last few weeks, is fascinating on multiple levels. Not only are at least two of them widely considered masterpieces, but one can see Rohmer's development as a filmmaker, especially when compared to the first two, as well as the entire industry over that groundbreaking period of time. Each disc in this three-disc set contains two films along with a massive amount of archival material, including additional short films by Rohmer, interviews, and more. Breaking it down by disc: “The Bakery Girl of Monceau” & “Suzanne’s Career” The first two films of the “Six Moral Tales” weren’t widely recognized until after Rohmer became an international success with films three and four (actually released in the opposite order, but we’ll get to that later). Rohmer himself was reportedly displeased with the production values of these short films, but they’re fascinating now to watch in the way one can see a masterful filmmaker developing his visual language. The connection from the 23-minute “The Bakery Girl of Monceau” to films like “My Night at Maud’s” is strikingly easy to make visually, and not just because all six films follow a similar story structure. In “Bakery Girl,” a man becomes obsessed with a stranger he sees on the street, stalking the sidewalk in the hope of seeing her again. In doing so, he stumbles into a bakery, where he begins a flirtatious relationship with a worker there. He eventually ends up with his original object of obsession. It’s less refined than later Rohmer, but a great short film nonetheless. The same could be said for “Suzanne’s Career,” which contains one of Rohmer’s most traditional love triangles in that it’s about a shy man falling for his outgoing friend’s girlfriend, Suzanne. It's clunkier narratively than later films, and also struggles technically. Even remastered for Criterion, it looks degraded. Special features on this disc include early short films by Rohmer—“Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak” (1951) and “Nadja in Paris” (1964)—along with a conversation between Rohmer and filmmaker Barbet Schroeder, his regular producer and star of “Bakery Girl. “ “My Night at Maud’s” & “La Collectionneuse” These are essentially the films that made Eric Rohmer an internationally renowned director, and you should go read the two reviews by Roger Ebert, published on their release, for incredible perspective on the impact they had when they came out. I particularly love how Roger dissects the centerpiece of “Maud’s,” a masterful scene of conversation between Jean-Louis Trintignant as Jean-Louis and Françoise Fabian as Maud. It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking, and Roger caught its power instantly: “The choreography of the scene perfectly reflects its content. Occasionally, Jean-Louis sits on the edge of the bed. Once he even leans toward her, to share a confidence. But then he retreats. She asks for a cigarette at one time, a drink of water at another. These are ploys to lure him closer, and he has his own. But there are times, when she signals that he's violating her personal space, or territorial imperative, or whatever it's called. And he reads the signals and moves away, apparently by chance.” Ebert goes on to rave about the way Rohmer changed the way simple conversation could be captured on film. He ends by writing, “It is so good to see a movie where the characters have beliefs, and articulate them, and talk to each other (instead of at each other). It is so good, in fact, that you realize how hungry you've been for this sort of thing.” A half-century later, it’s easy to see the impact movies like “My Night at Maud’s” had on dozens of filmmakers around the world, but equally fascinating to try and picture seeing it for the first time through Roger’s eyes. Click here to read Roger's 4-star review of "My Night at Maud's" He was also a fan of “La Collectionneuse,” the story of two men so bored at their seaside home that they basically play games with the teen girl who happens to be in their sphere. It’s a funny film to watch in a pandemic, when stuck-at-home boredom is a part of more lives than usual, and an interesting one in terms of tone. It feels crueler and darker than the previous three movies, and likely inspired someone who contributed a video afterword to disc three, Neil LaBute. You can see Luca Guadagnino all over it, too. It’s probably my least favorite of the full-length “Moral Tales,” and yet it’s still pretty damn good. The second disc also includes a short film called “A Modern Coed” (1966), an episode of French TV about “My Night at Maud’s,” an episode of educational TV about Blaise Pascal (a thematic focus of “Maud’s”), and an interview from Canadian TV from 1977 about “La Collectionneuse.” Click here to read Roger's Great Movies essay about "La Collectionneuse" “Claire’s Knee” & “Love in the Afternoon” I think my favorite Rohmer is “Claire’s Knee,” a perfect distillation of themes explored in his previous films. Watching it in succession, one can so easily see how it grew from the themes in the previous four tales. It’s also Rohmer’s most visually striking film, using the natural world in ways he didn’t really before—even in “La Collectionneuse,” the beauty of the setting almost feels like a drawback. Roger summed it up perfectly: “As with all the films of Eric Rohmer, 'Claire's Knee' exists at levels far removed from plot (as you might have guessed while I was describing the plot). What is really happening in this movie happens on the level of character, of thought, of the way people approach each other and then shy away. In some movies, people murder each other and the contact is casual; in a work by Eric Rohmer, small attitudes and gestures can summon up a university of humanity.” It's a masterpiece of gestures and attitude but it’s also cleverly self-aware of its place within the construct of the Six Moral Tales. Aurora basically sums up Rohmer’s entire career when she says, “Insignificant characters can inspire good stories.” Click here to read Roger's 4-star review of "Claire's Knee" Finally, there’s arguably Rohmer’s most famous film, even if Molly Haskell hated its ending, “Love in the Afternoon.” More traditional than the films that preceded it, it’s the story of a man tempted by another woman, and one can see its fingerprints over dozens of stories of tempted men and impossible love triangles for generations to follow. Click here to read Roger's 4-star review of "Love in the Afternoon" The final disc includes the aforementioned LaBute afterword, a segment of French TV on “Claire’s Knee,” and two more shorts—“Veronique and Her Dunce” (1958) and “The Curve” (1999), which was directed by Edwige Shaki, with Rohmer as technical advisor. The set also includes a booklet with essays by Geoff Andrew, Ginette Vincendeau, Philip Lopate, Kent Jones, Molly Haskell, and Armond White, along with an entire book of the translated versions of the stories by Rohmer on which his films were based. To order your copy of Criterion’s “Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales,” click here
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy
by Monica Castillo on May 22, 2020 at 12:36 PM
Before Alison Roman’s words about Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen got her in trouble, it was her famous stew—a mix of chickpeas, turmeric, coconut milk and a number of other yummy ingredients—that caught the attention of both admirers and detractors. While many saw just another recipe from the popular New York Times food columnist, others noted that the dish seemed fairly similar to curry, but rebranded or gentrified into something more palatable for a perceived general audience, stripped of its origins and served up as an Instagram-ready craze known as #TheStew. The controversy around #TheStew may have simmered down but the conversation about cultural authenticity, culinary appropriation, and Columbus-ing traditional dishes continues on, making Elizabeth Carroll’s insightful documentary “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” a much-needed perspective. The documentary profiles Kennedy’s decades-long efforts studying, collecting, and preserving traditional Mexican cooking. Born in England with an adventurous spirit, Kennedy left home to work in the Women’s Timber Corp during World War II. Eventually, her travels took her to Haiti where she would meet her husband, New York Times correspondent Paul Kennedy. The couple relocated to Mexico City, where Kennedy’s interest in replicating the home-cooked dishes of her neighbors grew into an anthropological study of different regions, ingredients and cooking methods. She traveled the country, often by herself, collecting recipes and ingredients, noting exact measurements and cooking techniques. She built a self-sustaining home outside of the city where she also tends to an impressive garden full of peppers, flowers, fruits and vegetables. Whatever she can’t grow, she goes into town to buy from local vendors. Now in her 90s, she’s as unspoken as ever about the need to respect tradition, wholesome ingredients and living with the land. Carroll’s film deals with the question of appropriation upfront, as it’s probably on a number of viewers’ minds as to why a British woman could call herself an expert on Mexican cooking. Kennedy does not take credit for discovering different tortilla recipes or watering down spices to make dishes more palatable. Instead, her cookbooks both named the region where the food is from and the name of the person who shared their recipe with her. How many modern-day cookbook authors would be so generous? Carroll adds in the voices of other culinary experts like Mexican chef Pati Jinich, Spanish chef José Andrés, and American chef Alice Waters to explain the importance of Kennedy’s work, changing outsiders’ limited perception of Mexican food and saving traditional recipes for future generations. The documentary also shows that Kennedy’s respect for Mexican cuisine is also reciprocated by local chefs. Of course, no modern documentary on a subject related to food would be complete without hunger-inducing close-ups of cooking. Carroll does not hold back on loving shots of freshly squeezed lime, bubbling pots of mole, shredded bits of Oaxacan cheese for tacos, steamed yellow flowers in a pan, or the work it takes Kennedy to beat avocados into tasty lumps of fresh guacamole. The delectable scenes tie in nicely with Kennedy’s fanatical dedication to using fresh ingredients. Who wouldn’t want to cook like this if they had backyard access to such culinary riches? Despite these savory distractions, Carroll’s film never loses sight of Kennedy. It would be almost impossible to do so. She’s a prickly character, an energetic curmudgeon who wields her sharp tongue as readily as she cuts tomatoes with a knife. She will not suffer fools asking her to change recipes or vendors trying to sell her items that don’t meet her high standards. She’s an intimidating presence, even in her old cooking shows from decades ago, who seems unforgiving of mistakes. Watching “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” made me appreciate that someone was taking authenticity seriously long before our current conversation. It also made me resent the number of times I’ve seen my family’s traditional dishes botched or appropriated, like Bon Appetit’s approximation of a Cuban mojo sauce that adds in jalapeños, an imported pepper to the island that would completely change the flavor. I thought of the first time I lifted the lid on a pot of what was supposed to be Cuban black bean soup in my college cafeteria, only to find that it was an entirely different color and consistency than what I grew up eating. Before watching “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy,” I wasn’t familiar with her story, but now I’m both hungry to try the recipes she’s collected throughout Mexico, and to learn more about her work. Available via virtual cinemas today, 5/22.
The Painter and the Thief
by Brian Tallerico on May 22, 2020 at 12:36 PM
There are three sequences in “The Painter and the Thief” that are going to stick with me for a long time. The first is an obvious one that everyone who sees it is going to be talking about—a young man named Karl-Bertil sees a painting of himself done by the talented Barbora. Watching the beauty of what he's seeing and what it means to him wash over his face is devastating. It’s clearly one of the few times in his life that his presence has led to beauty. He is overwhelmed by being seen so exquisitely through someone else’s eyes, and he begins to tremble and cry, unable to look away from the painting. By this point in the documentary about him and the painter, we know a bit about his dark past, but all we really need to know is in that expression. The concept of being seen through someone else’s eyes drives the best parts of “The Painter and the Thief,” a documentary that illuminates a great deal about the human condition even if it does kind of fizzle out in the third act. This concept drives the two sequences in the film I like even more. At separate times, Bertil is described by Barbora, and vice versa. Hearing someone who was a relative stranger pick out someone else's interesting traits is fascinating on its own but then add to that the layer of the filmmaker—director Benjamin Ree is the one choosing the images on the screen. For example, Bertil speaks of the importance of the day that Barbora saw a man die when she was a child and Ree chooses the image of a body under a sheet in the street. It is Barbora’s memory described by Bertil and visually interpreted by Ree. I could have watched this for hours. I love the parts of “The Painter and the Thief” that dig into the concept of interpretation and how the way other people see us influences the way we see ourselves. “The Painter and the Thief” begins with a brazen, daylight robbery. Two men, openly caught on security camera footage, break into a gallery and steal two paintings by Barbora Kysilkova. One of the men, Karl-Bertil, is caught and tried. At the hearing, Barbora works up the courage to speak to him, asking if they can talk outside of the legal proceeding, and quickly thereafter asking if she can paint him. As he sits in her apartment, they talk about their lives and become friends. Bertil claims to not remember a thing about that day. He took one painting; his buddy took the other. A severe drug addict who had been awake for four days and was looking for his next high, he doesn’t even remember what he did with the painting. It's hard to say if it’s a product of the editing or a credit to her character, but Barbora seems to give up fairly quickly on finding out what happened to her work. This is not that movie. This is a movie about a damaged soul having someone to talk to and the friendship that forms between the two of them. Over years, Ree returns to this pair for major events in their lives, including a horrible car accident that nearly kills Bertil. Barbora’s partner suggests at one point that she likes danger, a product of abusive relationships in her past, and there’s something about a tattoo-covered criminal junkie that simply attracts her like a kid who likes to play in traffic. I’ve read some people claim they didn’t even know “The Painter and the Thief” was a documentary until it was over, which typically sounds ridiculous but is more understandable here. There are no interviews to camera, and there's little intrusion by the filmmaker. Ree has a very cinematic language, shooting long shots down hallways, trailing his subjects like a French New Wave director would follow his fictional creations down a sidewalk. He sees the deeply cinematic story unfolding in front of him and mostly gets out of its way, almost to a fault. After an hour, it felt like I had gotten everything there was to get out of “The Painter and the Thief.” And while an hour of time spent with two subjects like Barbora and Bertil can be fascinating, I was hoping for something to take the film to the next level in the final section, but the opposite almost happens. A question that feels like it should have been asked long before is saved for the “climax,” and I was reminded of the construction of the film in a negative way. And yet I can’t deny the power of the best moments in “The Painter and the Thief.” More than any documentary in a very long time, it’s easy to imagine a narrative remake—I’m casting Mia Wasikowska as Barbora and Caleb Landry Jones as Bertil. I hope that version finds a more satisfying conclusion, but I also suspect it can’t possibly replicate that moment when a lost soul looked at a painting and realized that someone was trying to find him. Available on Hulu, VOD, virtual cinemas, and participating drive-in theaters today, 5/22.
by Christy Lemire on May 22, 2020 at 12:36 PM
Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan do their best to elevate “Military Wives” from a simple tune to a symphony, but the notes just aren’t there on the page. The two stars have a pleasingly prickly chemistry with each other in this familiar, feel-good dramedy from “The Full Monty” director Peter Cattaneo. Like that 1997 smash hit and many other British films of this genre since then, “Military Wives” follows a safe formula of dry wit and whimsy on the way to underdog triumph. It features a motley assortment of lovable misfits who will come together, tap into their previously unexplored talents, suffer a few setbacks but ultimately emerge victorious at The Big Performance. (This is not a spoiler. This is also the structure of nearly every sports movie, with The Big Game providing the emotional climax.) In “Military Wives,” inspired by a true story, Scott Thomas and Horgan’s characters try to wrangle their ragtag crew into shape to perform as a choir at the iconic Royal Albert Hall in London. But they have extremely different approaches to this task—as well as overall philosophies as to the group’s purpose—causing them to clash from the very beginning. They’re drawn distinctly in the script from Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard, certainly much more so than everyone else, but neither of them evolves much over the course of the film. Their passive-aggressive parrying may be enjoyable in the moment, but there’s no great sense of underlying tension to carry the movie forward with much momentum. These are all basically nice people trying to do a nice thing to keep their minds off the unpleasant reality of where their husbands are: Afghanistan in the early ‘00s. (There is one lesbian couple, but they’re barely defined.) Scott Thomas stars as Kate, the colonel’s wife, who holds a place of superiority on the army base tantamount to her husband’s rank. She’s in charge of arranging activities for the wives to keep them occupied and distracted while their spouses are deployed: book clubs, knitting circles, that sort of thing. Horgan’s Lisa gets roped into helping in this regard once her husband receives a promotion. Naturally, these women couldn’t be more different. Kate is all crisp button-downs and pearls, a stickler for decorum as a longtime military spouse, and when the idea of forming a choir arises, she quickly provides sheet music for solemn hymns. Lisa is all wisecracking asides and bottles of wine who suggests they sing songs the ladies actually know and like, such as “Only You” by Yaz and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” which becomes their anthem. These two strong-willed women can barely hide their disdain for each other, and watching them jockey for control of the choir is a consistent source of amusement. Cattaneo’s direction is extremely straightforward, which can be a bit dull, but it also gives these actresses room to shine. If only the film as a whole rose to their level of commitment. Scott Thomas delivers a subtle, multilayered performance as a woman who’s constantly stifling her emotions for the greater good. Not only has her husband signed up for this latest mission, but she’s also grieving the recent loss of the couple’s grown son in battle; her feelings of anxiety and sorrow are always there, simmering just below the surface of her stiff upper lip. Horgan, meanwhile, brings the earthy, accessible smarts that made her such a pleasure to watch on the TV series “Catastrophe.” Her abiding naturalism makes “Military Wives” much more compelling than it has a right to be. The supporting players can be described in a few words: the shy Welsh woman with an angelic voice, the brash soccer fan with a heavy accent, the eager but frequently off-key lesbian, the skittish young wife who married her childhood sweetheart. Of course, they’re terrible at first, which is meant to be hilarious. But far too quickly, they’re good enough to be invited to sing at the prestigious Festival of Remembrance honoring fallen British armed forces. “Military Wives” speedily skims through all these developments, but at nearly two hours still feels like it doesn’t dig deep enough into who these characters are and what their lives are like. We see it in tantalizing glimpses, such as the image of women looking out their windows at night as the men they love walk out down the street under the lampposts, dressed in fatigues with duffel bags slung over their shoulders, headed to the dangerous unknown. “Military Wives” could have used more of such graceful moments of insight and humanity. And despite the innovation it aims for in its emotional crescendo, the song remains the same. Available on Hulu and VOD today, 5/22.
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