True Grit

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In chapter six of Josh Larsen’s Movies Are Prayers, the book I’d been searching for my entire Christian life, he describes True Grit as a prayer of confession. The path the protagonists embark on is an opportunity for them, particularly Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to confess the foolishness of their ways, and by the end make amends for them.

After getting done with the chapter, I watched True Grit. The Coen brothers, nihilistics de rigueur, gift us with a very straightforward film that nevertheless possess their trademark wry dialogue and colorful characters. The picture is not as bleak as some of the other films in their filmography, but it could’ve been happier.

Not even in a sun drenched Western, with sweeping vistas of the land, do the Coens let the audience forget the merciless world we live in. But they also leave us with hope. Listen carefully to the hymn that plays over the closing credits, which is the same tune that plays throughout the film, and take note. There is hope.

A- 

 

When Harry Met Sally…

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What stops this movie from being one of the greatest romantic comedies I’ve ever seen is its conclusion. The decisions the characters make are a tad abrupt, and the philosophy they embrace runs counter to the spirit of the film up until that point. And then you learn that both the director and the screenwriter did not think it was a good, realistic ending. But at least it was a happy one.

Do I respect the decision? Sure. While I’m wary of happy endings since I think they dilute most films, serving as a dream of life more than an actual reflection of it, they do put a smile on my face. There’s been moments where I absolutely crave a happy ending, despite knowing it’ll make the movie less of what it is.

I am not a nihilist who believes everything deserves to end in bleak. But when films play by the rules of our world, and they’ve set up plot lines reflecting it, there’s a higher probability of hurt than of happiness. Does that speak to the life I’ve had up until this point? Perhaps.

Still, happy endings are good. Happy endings put a smile on my face, and they are sometimes exhilarating. And there are cases in which they are totally earned, though it does not happen as often, at least not with truly great pictures. But because the chief purpose of cinema is to engage the viewer with the life on screen, to empathize with them, usually what I want for the protagonist is what I would want for myself. I want him to get the girl.

A

Notes on a Scandal

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Every October, like clockwork, Rotten Tomatoes releases a list of the most “scary characters in movie history”. Now I finally realize that if those lists do not include Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), from Notes on a Scandal, they are incomplete.

The way Dench plays her, Barbara is a stern figure imposing respect wherever she goes, but not out of her accomplishments. It’d be difficult to look at the spinster and not wonder whether she’s ever heard of the word fun. Directing cold, steely gazes wherever she looks, Barbara also carries her loneliness as a badge of honor.

Normally filmmakers make the audience feel pity or tenderness or empathy for protagonists who are mired in solitude. Yet director Richard Eyre does something different with Barbara. Yes, the old woman is lonely, but she is also a monster. Not for once does the director lets us feel sorry for Barbara; she is deserving of the hell she finds herself in.

It’s here where Dench truly shines, demonstrating the duality of our human existence: we are both perpetrator and victim. But sometimes we’ll allow the injustices done to us to be our guiding light, so much so that we feel justified in being monstrous to others. If we’re lucky we’ll try to come to terms with ourselves. But if we’re not? We risk ending like bitter, old Barbara. Aching for human connection yet unable to sprint past the lair of resentment inhabiting our hearts.

B+

 

Cargo

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I settled on this one because of the coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping most parts of the globe. Life feels like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie right now, so I wanted to watch something similar. Sadly, this wasn’t it.

C+

A Single Man

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For a second, my Instagram bio read “in all of our searching, the only thing we found to make the emptiness bearable was each other”. I quickly decided it was too melodramatic a sentence, and thus removed it. But, was it really?

A Single Man is at its best when it confronts solitude head on, most notably in the conversations Colin Firth holds with Julianne Moore. For about ten minutes we witness two profoundly lonely people hold on to each other because they recognize the emptiness in one another’s life. Each word in their conversation is a breath of life, because who knows when the next time they’ll be able to speak their hearts will be?

Two years ago I watched a movie that included the following line of dialogue: “I think loneliness kills more people than cancer”. I quickly decided it was too melodramatic a statement for it too be effective in the context of what was happening. But, was it really?

B

The Art of Self-Defense

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A dark comedy that’s way darker than it is funny, The Art of Self-Defense begins by begging us to laugh at how pathetic Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is, and ends by making us uncomfortable at the man he’s become. That he’s always dreamed of being “what intimidates me” speaks to the thwarted ideal of masculinity that we sometimes fall prey to. This is what the movie seeks to highlight-toxic masculinity and its dehumanizing effect on society-, and it does work to a degree.

B

The Last Samurai

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Tom Cruise is one of the handful of human beings on the planet who can command the silver screen with his presence alone. Whatever the genre, the man infuses his characters with so much gravitas that I cannot help but be drawn in to them. And so it is with Nathan Algren, the world weary military man he plays in The Last Samurai. This film is an epic- it’s lengthy running time filled with heroism, romance, death, battles, speeches, sweeping views of the land and a swelling, lyrical score.

B+