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          • Entertainer
            Entertainer published a blog post #381 May 26, 2020

            Matt writesSteve James' acclaimed 2014 documentary "Life Itself," chronicling the life and legacy of our site's co-founder, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, premiered in virtual cinemas this past Friday (you can register to watch here) as part of Magnolia Pictures' new screening series entitled, "A Few of Our Favorite Docs." Each of the films will have a virtual Q&A on the Wednesday following their premiere, while ten percent of the ticket sales will be donated to a charity of the filmmakers' choice. One of the subjects in "Life Itself", publisher Chaz Ebert, will take part in a virtual Q&A with Steve James TOMORROW, May 27th (at this link). Chaz Ebert designated donations to go to the Chicago Cinema Workers Fund to help hourly workers who have had their jobs eliminated during the Coronavirus Pandemic. To donate directly to the fund click hereYou can also find exclusive footage of "Life Itself" premiering at Cannes 2014 in her video journal embedded below...

            2014 Cannes Segment 3 - from The Mint on Vimeo.


            Da 5 Bloods (2020). Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee. Starring Chadwick BosemanMélanie ThierryJean Reno. Synopsis: Four African American vets battle the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen Squad Leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide. Debuts on Netflix on June 12th, 2020.

            Becky (2020). Directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion. Written by Nick Morris, Ruckus Skye and Lane Skye. Starring Joel McHaleKevin JamesLulu Wilson. Synopsis: A teenager's weekend at a lake house with her father takes a turn for the worse when a group of convicts wreaks havoc on their lives. Debuts online on June 5th, 2020.

            The Old Guard (2020). Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Written by Greg Rucka (based on the comic book by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez). Starring Charlize TheronChiwetel EjioforHarry Melling. Synopsis: A covert team of immortal mercenaries are suddenly exposed and must now fight to keep their identity a secret just as an unexpected new member is discovered. Debuts on Netflix on July 10th, 2020.

            Miss Juneteenth (2020). Written and directed by Channing Godfrey Peoples. Starring Nicole BeharieKendrick SampsonAlexis Chikaeze. Synopsis: A former beauty queen and single mom prepares her rebellious teenage daughter for the "Miss Juneteenth" pageant. US release date is TBA.

            You Don't Nomi (2020). Directed by Jeffrey McHale. Synopsis: A documentary tracing the redemptive journey of Paul Verhoeven's "Showgirls" from notorious flop to cult classic, and maybe even masterpiece. Debuts online on June 9th, 2020.

            The Outpost (2020). Directed by Rod Lurie. Written by Eric Johnson (based on the book by Paul Tamasy and Jake Tapper). Starring Orlando BloomScott EastwoodCaleb Landry Jones. Synopsis: A small team of U.S. soldiers battle against hundreds of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Debuts online on July 2nd, 2020.

            Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020). Directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross. Synopsis: A look at the final moments of a Las Vegas dive bar called 'The Roaring 20s'. US release date is TBA.

            Relic (2020). Directed by Natalie Erika James. Written by Natalie Erika James and Christian White. Starring Emily MortimerBella HeathcoteRobyn Nevin. Synopsis: A daughter, mother and grandmother are haunted by a manifestation of dementia that consumes their family's home. Debuts online on July 10th, 2020.

            The Wanting Mare (2020). Written and directed by Nicholas Ashe Bateman. Starring Jordan MonaghanJosh ClarkYasamin Keshtkar. Synopsis: In Whithren, a line of women pass a recurring dream through multiple generations. US release date is TBA.

            Welcome to Chechnya (2020). Directed by David France. Synopsis: A group of activists risk their lives fighting for LGBTQ+ rights in Chechnya. US release date is TBA.

            The Last Days of American Crime (2020). Directed by Olivier Megaton. Written by Rick Remender and Karl Gajdusek (based on the comic book by Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini). Starring Michael PittEdgar RamírezSharlto Copley. Synopsis: In the not-too-distant future, as a final response to terrorism and crime, the U.S. government plans to broadcast a signal making it impossible for anyone to knowingly commit unlawful acts. Debuts on Netflix on June 5th, 2020.

            Force of Nature (2020). Directed by Michael Polish. Written by Cory Miller. Starring Mel GibsonKate BosworthEmile Hirsch. Synopsis: A gang of thieves plan a heist during a hurricane and encounter trouble when a cop tries to force everyone in the building to evacuate. Debuts online on June 30th, 2020.

            The Ghost of Peter Sellers (2020). Directed by Peter Medak. Synopsis: A comedy genius, a hot new director and a 17th Century pirate film. What could possibly go wrong? US release date is TBA.

            Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020). Directed by David Dobkin. Written by Will Ferrell and Andrew Steele. Starring Natasia DemetriouRachel McAdamsWill Ferrell. Synopsis: When aspiring musicians Lars and Sigrit are given the opportunity to represent their country at the world's biggest song competition, they finally have a chance to prove that any dream worth having is a dream worth fighting for. Debuts on Netflix on June 26th, 2020.

            American Woman (2020). Written and directed by Semi Chellas (based on the novel by Susan Choi). Starring Hong ChauEllen BurstynDavid Cubitt. Synopsis: Inspired by the headline-dominating kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst in 1974, this atmospheric drama is a fictionalized re-imagining of her time in hiding, from the perspective of Jenny, a political activist assigned to take care of her. US release date is TBA.

            Tommaso (2020). Written and directed by Abel Ferrara. Starring Cristina ChiriacWillem DafoeAnna Ferrara. Synopsis: The story of an American artist living in Rome with his young European wife Nikki and their 3-year-old daughter, Dee Dee. Debuts online on June 5th, 2020.

            The Short History of the Long Road (2020). Written and directed by Ani Simon-Kennedy. Starring Danny TrejoMaggie SiffSteven Ogg. Synopsis: A group of aspiring actors and filmmakers in post-World War II Hollywood try to make it big - no matter the cost. Debuts online on June 16th, 2020.

            Babyteeth (2020). Directed by Shannon Murphy. Written by Rita Kalnejais. Starring Ben MendelsohnAndrea DemetriadesEssie Davis. Synopsis: When seriously ill teenager Milla falls madly in love with smalltime drug dealer Moses, it's her parents' worst nightmare. But as Milla's first brush with love brings her a new lust for life, things get messy and traditional morals go out the window. Debuts online on June 19th, 2020.

            Chaz Ebert on "The Last Dance"


            Matt writes: Chaz Ebert recently appeared on Christy Lemire's Breakfast All Day podcast to discuss ESPN'S hugely entertaining docuseries, "The Last Dance," which inspired her to share some priceless stories about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. You can read them here.

            R.I.P. Lynn Shelton and Fred Willard


            Matt writes: On May 15th, we lost two extraordinary talents: the wonderful filmmaker Lynn Shelton (1965-2020) and the comedy genius Fred Willard (1933-2020). You can read our respective tributes to them penned by Brian Tallerico (here) and Peter Sobczynski (here).

            Free Movies

            Soursweet (1988). Directed by Mike Newell. Written by Ian McEwan (based on the novel by Timothy Mo). Starring Sylvia ChangDanny DunJodi Long. Synopsis: Just married Hong Kong couple Chen & Lily emigrate to England, soon to become parents to a little baby boy. When Chen lets his colleague Fok seduce him down a path of mounting gambling debts, he is recruited as a drug courier for a shadowy Chinese triad. Suddenly he realizes that getting their own enterprise could be their only means of escape.

            Watch "Soursweet"

            Paper Mask (1990). Directed by Christopher Morahan. Written by John Collee. Starring Paul McGannAmanda DonohoeFrederick Treves. Synopsis: A lowly hospital orderly impersonates a recently deceased doctor and goes to work in the busy ER of a small hospital where he meets and befriends a nurse who slowly figures out his secret and helps him maintain his charade. 

            Watch "Paper Mask"

            The Slab Boys (1997). Written and directed by John Byrne. Starring Robin LaingRussell BarrBill Gardiner. Synopsis: Paisley, Scotland, in 1957. Three working-class lads look forward to the staff dance at the local carpet factory. Exuberant social piece of observation cinema that concentrates on the boys' obsessions with lust, music and 'getting out'

            Watch "The Slab Boys"

            By: Matt Fagerholm
            Posted: May 26, 2020, 5:01 am

            • Entertainer
              Entertainer published a blog post Screened Out


              I'm guessing that about ten minutes into "Screened Out" you will want to hit pause. It could be because you have already begun to absorb its message about the damage that spending so much time on screens, especially social media, is doing to our brains, our children, and our culture, and you need to delete an app or two. Or, it could be because you want to check your email/Twitter/Instagram/Facebook and all of the other internet siren calls whose constant seductions are, according to this film, impossible to resist as a matter of neurochemistry. Either way, put down your phone and keep watching.

              Just because we already sense or know a lot of what is in this film does not mean we won't benefit from hearing it in such urgent and compelling fashion. You may be aware that email and social media are the first thing you check every morning and the last thing you check at night. You may know how much time it has taken away from what used to occupy your time. You may sense that the feeling of connection you get from seeing that someone liked your tweet about the first concert you attended or favorited your Instagram picture of a sandwich is not of the same quality as, say, an actual in-person conversation. 

              As though self-conscious about employing the very tricks it is exposing, the just-over-an-hour "Screened Out" maintains a very traditional structure, mostly a series of experts with a lot of dire statistics and conclusions and use of the term "addiction." There is also a too-brief "Super Size Me"-style segment, or, rather "Un-Super Size Me," as writer/director John Hyatt goes cold turkey and deletes his social media accounts, while his wife decides to keep them but cut back, and screens are banned for their sons except on weekends. 

              "I look at it all the time," Hyatt confesses. "It pulls me away from my work, my children, and my relationships." The entertainment, the comfort, the approval, the sense of connection we used to find in a variety of places and people and media are now all together in one device handily at hand 24/7. We do not realize that the entertainment, comfort, approval, and connection we get from it is synthetic, explicitly designed to trigger the same neurochemical bursts we get from the real thing.  

              As for all of those "free" social media apps? Say it with me: if you're not the customer, you are the product. While you're determining which "Game of Thrones" character you are, switching your status from "it's complicated" to "engaged" or clicking "wow" on the post about politics of someone you have not seen since high school, you are giving away pieces of yourself to Facebook which it is selling to advertisers. Facebook visionary Sean Parker is featured in the film explaining that their goal was "to consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible," exploiting a vulnerability of human psychology. Or, as one of the on-screen experts puts it, "Companies are doing everything they can to short circuit free will and make us forget we ever had it in the first place."  

              Unlike a book or a movie or a piece of music, there is no natural ending, or "stoppage cues." We scroll down endlessly, with the little dopamine hits of "likes" propelling us in search of the next one. While we may not realize that it is just a simulation of connection, this process has actually reduced our attention span down to eight seconds, or one second less than a goldfish. 

              We hear from a lot of experts, including the director of one of the country's first treatment centers specifically designed for those addicted to technology and the founder of a museum of personal computers. Jim Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media (and brother of former Presidential candidate Tom Steyer and a former colleague of this reviewer) points out that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was in kindergarten the last time Congress addressed privacy issues, tying the lack of oversight to the tech industry's rank as number one in lobbying expenditures.

              The experts with impressive qualifications in the film have some important information about how this all happened and why those concerned are not just a bunch of Luddites fearful of progress. But the experts who have the most impact are the teenagers who talk about staying up all night to check their social media and how devastated they are by not living up—online or IRL—to the images they see online. And Hyatt's own children tell him that when they see him on his phone they just wish he would pay more attention to them. If you are paying attention to this movie, and not looking at your phone, that is the scene you should and will remember.

              By: Nell Minow
              Posted: May 26, 2020, 12:53 pm

            • image

              Like the long-gone creatures it tells of, Disney's 2000 film "Dinosaur" is buried in the sands of recent Hollywood history. It’s a fossil from a time when CG was still not the norm, but was gaining popularity in traditional animation techniques that made the studio a giant in the 20th century. 

              Released on May 19, 2000, in between two 2D features, “Tarzan” and “The Emperor’s New Groove,” this prehistoric adventure marked a turning point for Walt Disney Animation. At the time, Pixar had already found success with the two first installments of the “Toy Story” franchise and “A Bug’s Life,” while DreamWorks had also ventured into the 3D realm with “Antz.” And though Disney continued to go the hand-drawn route for a few more years after, they grasped where the industry was heading and used “Dinosaur” as a prototype. 

              Back in the late '80s, the technology that would eventually bring it to life was still in its infancy. Paul Verhoeven was meant to direct an original screenplay by Walon Green, a project imagined as a serious two-hander focused on the lone journey of a dinosaur and a lemur. Sadly, we will likely never learn how this presumably more adult, and mix-medium piece using stop-motion and puppets, would have turned out. 

              Evidently, elements of that concept survived when Disney picked up the project. But by the time it reached co-directors Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton after development limbo and multiple changes in leadership, the ambition was now to create a family product that capitalized on children’s fascination with the massive beasts that populated our world 65 million years ago. 

              Though nearly a dozen people were involved in the writing at different stages, the final screenplay was credited to John Harrison and Robert Nelson Jacobs. It tells the story of Aladar (voiced by D.B. Sweeney), an Iguanodon raised by lemurs in the Cretaceous Period, who must join a migrating herd with his adoptive family after their home is destroy by a meteor. Inevitably, comparisons to Don Bluth’s “The Land Before Time” have always abounded. 


              From a technical standpoint, “Dinosaur” would not only be Disney’s first foray into crafting fully 3D characters, but a ground for experimentation on a breathtakingly large scale. The aim was to give audiences the chance of witnessing a photorealistic interpretation of a lost world we could only imagine when visiting museums. Of course, there had to be a moving narrative propelling it, but the idea of blending CG dinosaurs with live-action backgrounds is what made it exponentially ambitious by design. 

              In order to tackle such a tall order, Disney set up a new VFX studio known as The Secret Lab at an estimated cost of around $50 million on top of the movie’s reported budget of $127.5 million, a stratospherically expensive price tag for any film, then or now. Aside from building the facility by merging preexisting properties, the studio was comprised of artists who were still not versed in computer animation software. Most of the 900 people that worked on “Dinosaur” had to be trained for a year and half to attain the needed skill set. 

              The unprecedented nature of the project pushed the filmmakers and their large team to come up with a singular production plan, which entailed capturing images in the real world to later manipulate them digitally. More importantly, they developed programs to make the dinosaurs and lemurs on screen as realistic as possible while still being anthropomorphic. These ancient beings needed to talk and emote. 

              First, they took some major creative liberties with timelines and the physiognomy of the Iguanodons. Lemurs didn’t exist at the same as dinosaurs (they separated by about 50 million years), but the furry animals provided a familiar humanity that supported the emotional through-line. On the other hand, Iguanodons had beaks, but these didn’t allow for the expressiveness needed in the protagonist, so they opted from removing them and instead adding lips that would make for a more humanoid movement when talking. 

              Animators worked with Mug Shot, a tool that allowed them to blend shapes within the popular Maya program to manipulate facial expressions in their digital dinos. Similarly, there was great attention to muscle structures that comprise each of their bodies and to the way the skin reacts to movement. Even some of these elements seem commonplace for our 2020 standards, two decades ago these were revolutionary advancements.  


              One of the most astounding technical achievements the “Dinosaur” team pioneered was designing a digital mechanism to cover the bodies of the lemur family with believable fur, which had to react to wind, dust, and water. This new tool was later employed to create the grass we see on screen. Originally the team tried to implement images of real grass patches, but these were too still and didn't interact properly with creatures’ movement. A curious fact is that grass didn’t exist during that period, but the anachronistic choice helped enliven the CG set. 

              Impressively, the backgrounds featured throughout include live action footage shot across the globe. In the six-minute opening alone there are vistas from Venezuela, Hawaii, Samoa, Florida, Australia, and Southern California. Once the storyboards were completed, live-action units would scour the world to find locations that would match what the story demanded and photograph it. 

              That initial photographic reference from multiple corners of the world would be brought back into the studio for the team to translate them into a tridimensional model using 3D WorkBook, a program that allowed them to work on the camera angles and have a real sense of the dinosaurs’ dimensions within the spaces. Then the live-action filmmakers would return to those real locations and shoot the scenes taking into account the blocking information created digitally to capture scenes pretending as if the dinosaurs were actually there. Only resources like those at Disney could support the globetrotting process. 

              Other aspects of the production that at first glance we could assume are digital were also created in reality. For example, during the sequence in which the meteor falls on the water creating a “Monster Cloud,” many of the explosions in the final film were done at the Disney Ranch in Burbank. When we see Aladar running away from the fallout, the flares we see and the objects crashing on the ground are practical effects. 

              In turn, the destruction of Lemur Island and the nearby cliff were captured by blowing up miniature versions of those sets for added realism. For a later scene, in which a lonely and aggressive Bruton (Peter Siragusa) joins Aladar and his friends, the production built a miniature cave to a 1/6 of scale since they couldn’t find one that was large enough to realistically “fit” the imaginary characters and because they needed to have control of the lighting and the movement of the rocks within it. 

              Many of the aerial shots and other sequences that required the camera to move at the speed of the massive subjects were shot using the Dino Cam, which is what the production named the camera rig that could tower as tall as 50 feet; it would fly through the skies or even very close to the ground to give us the sense that we were moving with the dinosaurs. A great example of its use is early on, when the villainous Carnotaurus is chasing its prey. 

              Each final frame in “Dinosaur” is an intricate composite of multiple plates that integrated the live-action backgrounds with CG characters, along with a mix of digital and practical effects. This was the kind of movie magic that could enrapture a young kid’s imagination. 


              Far from being a box office bomb, the film amassed $349.8 million worldwide. But as much as “Dinosaur” was praised for being a visual marvel upon its release, the general critical consensus pointed to a screenplay that felt derivative and simplistic. The film's existence was only briefly revived when Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur,” considered one of the studio’s worst releases, walked similar ground and caused people to reference its predecessor. 

              “Dinosaur” was released a year before the Academy began awarding the Best Animated Feature Oscar, which in 2001 had three CG nominees, and failed to received a nomination for Best Visual Effects. As for Zondag and Leighton, neither have directed another film since; however, both continue to work in the medium in different areas of animation departments of features and TV shows.  

              Watching “Dinosaur” 20 years after its original release, it's easy to see that its pursuit of spectacle trumped the ideas of plot originality, or even the moral complexity that could have derived from a story about Earth's instinctual and enormous inhabitants. Still, it has great value as a relic from a time when the new millennium promised a new, better way of filmmaking that would satisfy our hunger for visions beyond our reach. Even if film's mark is more ephemeral, it’s worth revisiting if only to long for the innovation and risk-taking greatness that seems mostly extinct in studio fare these days.

              By: Carlos Aguilar
              Posted: May 26, 2020, 12:54 pm

            • image

              Chaz Ebert is happy to announce that two new guests will join her and director Steve James Wednesday, May 27, to discuss her late husband, Roger Ebert, and the acclaimed documentary "Life Itself" chronicling his life. (It will take place here tomorrow at 5pm PT/6pm MT/7pm CT/8pm ET) "I am absolutely thrilled that singer/songwriter Clem Snide (a.k.a. Eef Barzelay) will grace us with the original song he wrote called 'Roger Ebert,'" said Chaz. "It just fits perfectly in these surreal times. I think it would get Roger's Thumbs Up!"  

              imageScott Avett and Eef Barzelay. imageScott Mantz

              "We are also so fortunate to welcome Scott Mantz, the Emmy-nominated producer and film critic as our moderator. Steve James and I have not had a chance to discuss the documentary lately, and I'm just hoping that I can do so without getting too emotional about it. I have to say it was a beautiful experience watching it in my home theater where Roger and I have watched many movies over the years."

              "And the fact that 10% of the proceeds will be donated to the Chicago Cinema Workers Fund just brings tears to my eyes. It is just what Roger would have wanted. One of the reasons he loved movies so much was because of the empathy they conveyed and the way they motivated us to help make life better for others."

              "Life Itself" opened in virtual cinemas this past Friday, May 22nd, as part of Magnolia Pictures' screening series entitled, "A Few of Our Favorite Docs." However, you can still purchase the film package for $5 (here) to watch the film before the session tomorrow night. Once you purchase any film from the Doc series you have up to 30 days to watch it, but once you start watching it, you have 72 hours to complete it. 

              You may submit questions for the Q&A to: or be tweeted with the hashtag #magnoliadocseries. 

              For more information about Eef Barzelay and Clem Snide, see here.

              The other films in the series are "RBG," BLACKFISH," and "HAIL SATAN." 


              For more info, including a complete list of the participating venues, click here.

              "Life Itself" is available to screen here, and the Q&A will take place here tomorrow, May 27th.

              By: The Editors
              Posted: May 26, 2020, 10:29 pm

            • image

              I’m always a little hesitant when properties I loved as a child are rebooted for a new generation. I’m old enough to remember the pain of the film version of “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.” More recently, “Scoob!” simply doesn’t understand what most people liked about its source material. I’m not saying a reboot needs to be slavishly loyal to its inspiration, but it’s nice to feel like the creators of a new version of a classic understand what made the first one work. And there have been enough half-hearted, mediocre reboots of Looney Tunes over the years that I was apprehensive about the new iteration, premiering on HBO Max with launch on May 27th. Almost immediately, I felt safe.

              The people behind “Looney Tunes Cartoons” completely understand why Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the gang became icons. Talents from great modern animated shows like “Steven Universe” and “Star vs. the Forces of Evil” have come to the world of Looney Tunes with enough reverence and creativity that most kids won’t see the difference between the originals and these new cartoons. They’re not trendy updates for the iGeneration or modern takes on classics. They’re an attempt to just make more of what people loved. The same classic pairings, the same vaudeville sense of humor, the same visual delights. And there are going to be 80 of them on HBO Max, including holiday specials. I will watch every single one.

              From the beginning “Looney Tunes Cartoons” embraces its origins, using not just the same fonts and graphics as the classics but updated versions of the classic music from them as well. But there’s more to what’s happening here than mere mimicry—there’s an understanding of tone and, yes, character. From the very first short, in which Porky Pig and Daffy Duck seek the lost treasure of the legendary Monkey-Bird, it’s like seeing classic comedians resurrected in their prime. There’s Daffy stepping on all the booby traps while Porky gets all the damage. Future shorts available to press include Bugs Bunny tricking Yosemite Sam through an arm wrestling match and Sylvester the Cat thinking he finally ate Tweety, and now he’s haunted by the yellow bird. You won’t find references to Tik Tok or Instagram on “Looney Tunes Cartoons.”


              And it’s not only the sense of humor that has come through the years to this new iteration but strong visuals as well. So much of “Looney Tunes” is based on physical humor and visual flights of fancy, but the simple animation of the original was often borne out of necessity. Even with all the new technology at their disposal, the new creators keep “Looney Tunes” delightfully simple visually. The backgrounds look like matte paintings and the characters look hand-drawn, altered ever so slightly from the source in ways that only the most diehard fans will notice.

              It does take some time to get used to the new voices. Eric Bauza is a veteran of over 200 animated series, and has voiced dozens of iconic characters in cartoon form, including Fozzie on “Muppet Babies,” Woody Woodpecker, Stimpy, Donatello, and many more. He’s earned his shot at Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Marvin the Martian, and Tweety Bird. And while his Bugs sounded a bit off at first, I got used to it quickly. The same holds for all of the voice work.

              Some people will look at “Looney Tunes Cartoons” and think that just copying greatness isn’t that much of an achievement. They’re wrong. Nailing the tone of the original Looney Tunes shorts in a way that can impress a diehard fan like me is not nearly as easy as it looks. It’s a product of hiring the right, talented animation veterans, people who are probably in this field because of Mel Blanc, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, and the rest of the legends who changed animated comedy with the adventures of a wise-cracking rabbit and a doomed duck.

              Three episodes screened for review.


              By: Brian Tallerico
              Posted: May 26, 2020, 12:54 pm

            • If you're wondering why you should visit Fiji then here are the best reasons that will convenience you to go Fiji. 

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                                  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.

                                  By: Allison Shoemaker
                                  Posted: May 25, 2020, 12:54 pm