Movie of the Week: Good Will Hunting (1997)

Gus Van Sant directs Matt Damon, Robin Williams and Ben Affleck in this Oscar winning drama about a working class orphan who cleans the floors at Harvard, and proves to be an advanced mathematics genius.

One of the finest non-genre movies ever made. Working class protagonist, and very much a closer representation of what its like to be on the cusp of adulthood as a young man than any other film has achieved. To wit, I cannot think of many that attempt it. The drinking, the driving around, the fights, the banter. That’s just a small part of the overall story but the sequences with Damon, Affleck, Casey his brother and Cole Hauser ring so true to me. Pubs used to close bang on 11 in West London. So me and my first real group of boozing buddies used to drive over to the local multiplex and keep drinking, stay out at whatever the midnight movie was showing. Boogie Nights, There’s Something About Mary, this. This… many times. Surprisingly There’s Something About Mary was the only one we got into a fight during.

Ben and Matt, then relative unknowns, childhood pals, wrote a script by ping pong-ing email drafts to each other from hotel rooms while on-location in indie features and sixth billed roles in forgotten studio product. The script became feted around Hollywood, passed across between Michael Mann (he wanted to make them car thieves), William Goldman (he advised them to drop a conspiracy thriller subplot, they listened), Kevin Smith and that dreaded Harvey Weinstein. Thanks to the beast they got to star in it, not that unusual, but this made them overnight A-Listers and perhaps the least likely Oscar Winners of their decade. Yet their movie is a modernist fairytale, any actors’ dream, romantic yet authentic, intelligent yet droll. It contains a forlorn yet magical score by Danny Elfman plus showcases some beautiful, mournful cuts from indie singer song-writer Elliot Smith. It is a glossy, flawless piece of cinema that retains an indie vibe and a wounding sense of reality. Probably closest in strange variety and overlooked prestige to The Shawshank Redemption… it is a work of art that somehow encompasses all the many flavours of big screen emotion without ever feeling like a discombobulated mish-mash of themes.

You could point to this craftsman or that technician to diagnose the how and why of Good Will Hunting’s qualities. Yet I suspect the script the boys slaved over was the golden ticket. It attracted talent. Top billed Robin Williams gives his finest performance. Better even than the genie in Aladdin. Pretty much everyone is given room to stun, breathe, stand-out. No character is without their moment of humanity or foible. There’s three iconic scenes. A preppy douche gets his ass handed to him when Will recites his course bibliography at him in a bar. A chat on a bench that is devastating. And, of course, “It is not your fault, Will.” All the beats in between the highlights have a literary energy, the kinda moments lesser movies would kill for.

There’s a constant unspoken homoeroticism to the movie. Obviously, Gus Van Sant was one of Hollywood first openly gay directors. This could be seen as gun-for-hire work. And maybe knowing his usually more transgressive cinema well means you look for clues of an auteurist vision a little too hard. But it is definitely there. There in a playground fight that lingers on the flexed muscles of young men. There in the sad, unspoken backstory of Robin Williams bereaved psychiatrist and Stellan Skarsgård’s pushy professor. Van Sant brings a masculine intimacy to the melodrama. Intimacy rather than maths, class, genius or trauma proves the ultimate theme. Will doesn’t just use his supernatural intelligence to improve his life. He is too self destructive for that. He uses it as a shield, a battering ram to protect him from growing to close to anyone. After a childhood of abuse and toughening up, it isn’t just the lofty academic world of M. I.T. he proves a fish-out-of-water in. It is everything. Relationships, romance, therapy. Good Will Hunting on the surface is the tale of the smartest kid in the room being the unlikeliest. But really its is about a violent young man, learning to open up to humans who might hurt him but won’t, and living a life less risk averse.

10

Perfect Double Bill: Dead Poets Society (1989)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

Prey (2022)

Dan Trachtenberg directs Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers and Michelle Thrush in this stealth prequel to the Predator franchise where a Comanche warrior proves her worth against the alien hunter.

I’ve perversely enjoyed all the Predator sequels so it might shock you to say I found this competent, adequate, maybe a little too classy. The untrained doggie who they just shot coverage of and found his performance in the edit, him I loved. The CGI animals I hated. Amber Midthunder carried her story successfully, relying on physicality. Yet the final showdown didn’t match that wild feeling of all hell breaking loose that has become the Predator hallmark even in the weaker episodes. Everything else hit the spot but didn’t light me up. Maybe I was a little overly tired to watch this on launch night, a subsequent revisit will tumble everything that is praiseworthy into position. I was entertained, I like the fact that the 18th century setting gave this episode a clean slate to work with, a sincere space to do its own thing. But in my heart of hearts I want cartoon yardies, comic book yakuzas and buddy movie Section 8s going up against the slime green blooded, one ugly muthafucka. Native Americans and colonial trappers feel a little too real world. Pirates? Yeah, now that’s an alternative history lesson I’m all ears for. As solid as Prey is, it lacks the carnage this particular franchise has primed me for. The best set piece involves a mire and a tomahawk yet I felt even it skipped that one last ratchet of desperation that truly makes these types of smaller scale salvos memorable. I know people are hard gushing on Prey, who admire its consistency, see it as a belated heir to the Arnie original. But I enjoyed Shane Black’s utterly incomprehensible attempt to rejig the mythology just as much. So I’m off to film jail, aren’t I?

6

Perfect Double Bill: Predator 2 (1990)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

The Rock (1996)

Michael Bay directs Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris in this action blockbuster where an imprisoned spy and a chemical geek team up to rescue San Francisco in this “Die Hard in a” Alcatraz.

Blistering on initial taste. Teenage Bobby Carroll had a blast going to see this. My fingernails were cutting into my palms by the all-out finale when I first watched it. It became a mainstay of my VHS and then DVD viewing habits for the next ten years. The colours pop, the cast is rammed, the biggest set-pieces totally OTT. As a jaded adult you realise there are problems, the script doesn’t really know what to do after it has fun getting all its pieces spectacularly on the board, for every good chunk of carnage there’s an undercooked excuse of action that feels like filler, you’d hardly be able to state in a court of law that the three lead performances gel. Connery is the winner, leaning into the “what if 007 had be incarcerated by the yanks for three decades” vibes with minimal grimacing. Cage is off the chain and you wouldn’t want him any other way. The totalitarian score by Hans Zimmer gets the heart thumping. So… it’s the over eager runt of the litter compared to Con Air and Face / Off… it still has the Friday Night Goods. “Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.”

7

Perfect Double Bill: 13 Hours The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2013)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

Psychobitch (2019)

Martin Lund directs Jonas Tidemann, Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne and Saara Sipila-Kristoffersen in this Norwegian teen drama where a popular boy begins to fall for the troubled outcast at his school.

Well made and with a noteworthy performance from Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne. At the midway point she moves out of the foreground and the movie solely focuses on the outwardly perfect Jonas Tidemann’s dilemmas. He’s a wet and makes some awful choices. Imagine if you had to watch all of Pretty In Pink from Andrew McCarthy’s point of view? No, thank you. Shame as there was some real spiky energy in that first half, the snowy setting was particularly eye catching.

5

Perfect Double Bill: Crazy/Beautiful (2001)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

Sierra Burgess Is a Loser (2018)

Ian Samuels directs Shannon Purser, Kristine Froseth and RJ Cyler in this teen romcom re-wriggling of Cyrano De Bergerac.

Exists in it own light fantasy world, Barb from Stranger Things makes for a sympathetic lead. It is all nice enough, maybe a bit forgettable. But then it shits the bed by making our likeable protagonist do something completely out of character, just for some third act jeopardy that a movie like this really doesn’t need.

4

Perfect Double Bill: Never Been Kissed (1999)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

Broadcast News (1987)

James L. Brooks directs Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks and William Hurt in this serious romantic comedy set in the world of television news reporting.

“Network! Only with less ranting and more meet-cutes.” This should be right up my street. Imperfect characters, in a believable jerky love triangle, set in an intellectually stimulating and robust world. The pull between looks and intelligence, sex appeal and connection, sizzle and facts, corporate needs and public service. Yet it is also a bit of a cold fish, people like Hunter’s producer and Brooks’ journalist rarely take centre stage in mainstream Hollywood for a reason. Flinty, capable, arrogantly smart people. People a bit like hopefully you and hopefully me. But that doesn’t exactly mean they fit the frothier needs of a rom-com satisfactorily. I’ve probably seen the even-handed, slightly melancholy little epilogue for Broadcast News twice as many times as the film entire. It is sad, believable, real. And the complete opposite of what any of us desire from a big budget wide release. I’m not saying it ain’t admirable but you do wonder what Jack Nicholson’s up to in the background? Whether you’d rather be watching his flawless seduction of the new network owner or a recently widowed first lady…

6 (But I really want to score it higher every time)

Perfect Double Bill: Switching Channels (1988)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Tay Garnett directs Lana Turner, John Garfield and Cecil Kellaway in this classic film noir where a drifter falls for a gas station owner’s wife with murderous consequences.

Both the simplest idea for a plot in the world and the most bonkers treatment of said plot. Anything can happen and often does. Maybe this is more about atmosphere than logic but it makes for a laughably wobbly watch throughout. Cats interrupt, model cars tumble, judge’s have, what can only be described as, a “power saving mode” day. The esoteric title isn’t explained until the final scene, and when it clunkily is you feel like saying “Run that past me again please.” The movie’s strength is three fascinating performances but they all have to prop up a weak central one by Garfield. I’ve seen him be well cast elsewhere but there’s something about the torrid madness of this that swamps him. Cecil Kellaway and Hume Cronyn are really a cut above in their untrustworthy support roles. Yet this is Lana Turner’s BBQ thoughout. She oozes fuckability. Only ever dressed in pure radiant white or deep inky blacks. Iconic, but iconic in a hot mess. James M Cain’s novel has been adapted a surprisingly frequent number of times, this is probably the most famous iteration but also the one least worthy of your two hours.

5

Perfect Double Bill: Body Heat (1981)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

The Master (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson directs Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in this period drama where a WWII veteran drunkenly searches America for a place he’ll fit, and finds himself taken in by the charismatic leader of a gentile cult.

Choppy. Undefined. A series of fine scenes, and a few pointless ones. Two great performances but in the service of what? PTA assembled this from script ideas he couldn’t find a home for in other projects, great American novels he couldn’t afford to do a whole adaptation of. This bitty nature adds to the characters sense of displacement. Looks fantastic, wastes Amy Adams, compelling in fits and starts. They can’t all be winners, kid. Let’s call it a draw.

6

Perfect Double Bill: Capote (2005)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

Chopping Mall (1986)

Jim Wynorski directs Kelli Maroney, Tony O’Dell and John Terlesky in this low budget sci-fi slasher where the new security robots who patrol a shopping mall at night break-up a party with deadly force.

Cheapie that does exactly what it says on the tin. The epitome of adequate. Barbara Crampton has a small role, the electronic score is catchy.

5

Perfect Double Bill: Deadly Friend (1986)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

Barton Fink (1991)

The Coen Brothers direct John Turturro, John Goodman and Judy Davis in this period comedy horror mystery about a playwright who sells his soul to Hollywood and promptly gets writer’s block.

This. I don’t know what this is. I’ve watched it pretty much every decade of my life and never fully fathomed it. The closest I’ve gotten to a connection is a scene in an early series of The Simpsons were Milhouse is excited about being taken to see an R rated movie. As the car drives off he and his friends excitedly chant “BARTON FINK! BARTON FINK! BARTON FINK!” It has female flesh, violence and swears. Just not how you want ‘em. Not how Milhouse wants ‘em.

Fink a betrayer. Think – the name of the man, a creative man, an imaginative voice without a creative idea. Ink… he’s struggling to put ink on the page. Turturro’s miserable Barton, wrestling to write a B picture after setting the New York literati alight. A scrawny, needy, unloveable performance. The Coens usually deal in dolts… this guy is too smart. Too smart to do anything but repeat past glories. Does he have anything to say? Norville Barnes has his hula hoop, The Dude can really tie a mystery together. The brains though, the thinkers… he’s like a Tom Regan or a Ulysses Everett McGill – they thought they were wise, they look wise, everyone treats them as wise… until they aren’t and they lose it all. Fink though, he just ain’t for nothing but getting slapped about. Maybe he’s most like a Jerry Lundegaard or a Larry Gopnik – pitiful, his life out of control, mediocrity that got too comfortable being the medium fish in a tiny pond.

Goodman’s Charlie “Karl “Madman” Mundt” Meadows though. He could be anyone. The everyman that Fink wants to be the voice of but can’t be bothered to listen to. When he tries to type he hears jovial Charlie wailing through the walls, when he needs distraction he talks about himself to the verbose man. “And I could tell you some stories…” Maybe if Barton listened he would be lost in a quicksand of sex, alcoholism, murder and writer’s block. But maybe he shouldn’t have sold his soul. Yet Goodman’s everyman remains charismatic even when you think he is hell on legs. Hell, the devil, the Hotel Earle. He-ell. On fire.

All the details are present and correct. Roger Deakins brown palette cinematography. Dennis Gassner, the art director, who builds period worlds. He has time travelled us to whatever decade the Coens or Sam Mendes might have a yen to take us. Strange to think he started out on The Hitcher and Earth Girls Are Easy.

Why do the walls drip jizzy goo? Why is the girl in the picture so distractingly beautiful? What is in that box? What has Chet done to deserve his endless shoe polishing pit? Who killed [REDACTED]? Is it about slavery or the holocaust or Clifford Odetts? Art versus commerce? Some of the answers are so obvious yet the Coens never bother to answer them. It is like a sudoku with all the numbers filled in but still ain’t solved. A crossword in a dead language. A blank page with a deadline and writer who only ever had one tale to tell. I don’t care what it is about. Barton Fink is an esoteric exercise, made as pastiche but without a definitive thought in its head. The word “head” was said 60 times in the original script. The studio owns the contents of Barton’s head. The head runs the studio. The Coens first major studio script hit an empasse. They wrote this easily in a self imposed break to freshen their thoughts. Head. This is exactly where their heads where when writing a tangled gangster pic.

8

Perfect Double Bill: Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/