Friday, January 4, 2019

Spoilers and Red Herrings: Four Recent Films

It pains me to report that several recent films highly praised by critics and audiences alike did not sit very well with me. I'm not sure much of a point is served by gunching, and I'm not trying to dissuade anyone from seeing these soon-to-be cultural landmarks. All I can say is that I didn't like them much ... and I'll tell you why.

It would be difficult to do this without revealing one or two of the plot twists involved, so readers who are planning to see them beware.  

First on the list is Roma, the most celebrated film of the year, to judge from the Metacritic scores. (Then again, Ratatouille, a cartoon about a rat that wanted to be a chef, scored a 99 a few years back.) It's a stunning black-and-white film about a middle-class family in Mexico City, though it would be useful to know going into the theater that the focus of director Alfonso Cuarón's attention is the maid, Cleo. This is because none of the family members have much character or definition, and Cleo herself is so quiet, dutiful, and subservient that she's not very interesting, either. Thus the lighting, mis en scene, and cinematography must take center stage. 

And it's true that individual scenes are so artfully designed and tonally balanced that any given frame could be printed, framed, and hung on a wall to good effect. This same quality limits the close-ups, which is too bad. We never get to know anyone well. It's just a bunch of bratty kids, a philandering husband (absent pretty much throughout), a neurotic wife, a maid, and a cook. The most lively and interesting character is the grandmother, who probably appears on screen for less than ten minutes.

Perhaps sensing this lack of emotional resonance, Cuarón's ends the film with the family taking a trip to the beach. And it got me wondering how many movies end this way. What came to mind first was Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows, where the protagonist escapes from reform school and goes to the beach, because he's never seen the sea before.

Then we have Wim Wenders' The American Friend, with a Volkswagen beetle racing to the beach to furious guitar strumming. And what about the big argument-at-the-beach scene from Big Night, which naturally calls to mind the even more famous ending to La Dolce Vita, where the jaded and decadent revelers end up on a beach at dawn watching a dead octopus wash up on shore. And for good measure, what about the dream sequence that serves as a climax of sorts to the recent Korean film At Night on the Beach Alone?

Nothing is more emotional, definitive, powerful, mysterious, and vague than the sea. And here I sit on the shore of Lake Superior, pen in hand, as the sky grows dark, listening  to the roar of the surf crashing against the beautiful slabs of rock--powerful, irregular, almost subliminal at times in its ceaseless rumblings. 

Events are the froth of things, but my true interest is the sea. - Paul Valéry

A second film I didn't much like, though it had potential, is First Reformed. Here a minister (Ethan Hawke) whose life was shattered when his son died in Iraq and his wife left him, is tending a colonial "museum" church under the patronage of the evangelical megachurch next door. Hawke drinks too much, and has only six parishioners, but the choir director of the megachurch has a crush on him (he should be grateful!) and one of his parishioners asks him to counsel her husband, an eco-radical who wants her to get an abortion rather than bring another innocent creature into this benighted world.

Meanwhile, Hawke has been entrusted with the responsibility of delivering the homily at the anniversary celebration for his church—an event that's being largely underwritten by one of the biggest polluters in the state. Complications ensue.

Director Paul Shrader, hitherto best known as the screenwriter for Taxi Driver, does a good job of keying up the existential angst, and Hawke holds the screen as the guilt-ridden minister, who in his idle hours is keeping a diary of his lonely days at the sparsely furnished rectory next to the church. In fact, the acting is uniformly first-rate. And scholarly articles have already been written placing the film within the context of George Bernanos's novel Diary of a Country Priest and the films of Dreyer and Resnais.

Trouble is, the ending simply doesn't work. It falls squarely within the "woman as savior" tradition which can be traced back to Goethe, Ibsen, and countless other artists. It may often be valid in life, and it often works in fiction, but it's too simplistic to serve as a resolution to the tortured emotional valences of the plot we've been following for ninety minutes.

Then we have Can You Ever Forgive Me? Here a biographer who has lost her audience—and her cash flow—takes to forging letters by famous writers to make ends meet. She also derives some bitter pleasure from the fact that her witty remarks are being accepted as one-liners by Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. Quite a bit of the film takes place in used bookshops, which is nice, and the characterizations of Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, who plays her partner in crime, are worthy of our applause. 

Trouble is, the characters they're portraying aren't likable people. We have no sympathy for them. Their irresponsible and anti-social behavior has none of the appeal of an "anti-hero" maintaining his integrity in a world gone mad (a la Jack Nicholson in his prime) and therefore, their foibles are only marginally interesting. It seems odd to me that anyone would consider this story worthy of the effort required to film it.  

And what about the Coen brothers' latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: six short films, all set in the West—bank robber, prospector, wagon master, guitar-strumming gunslinger, and so on. In True Grit, the Coens' showed they could spin a good story from beginning to end. But here they revert to their special brand of black humor, and that's too bad, because some of the narratives are pretty good as they unfold. I especially liked the wagon train segment and the one highlighting Tom Waits prospecting for gold in a gorgeous mountain valley, which is as beautiful as anything you'll see in Shane

My favorite film of the last six months is Crazy Rich Asians. A little too long, perhaps, but full of fun and froth. But in reviewing these various films, I'm reminded of the richness of imagery they carry and the novel corners of the world they expose, regardless of the shape of the plot. None was a total waste, and in the aggregate we'd have to describe them all as "above average" in one way or another.

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