It’s a little sad that you have to remind adults to not be dicks to other people about things like movies, but here we are. Here we always seem to be. As I was working on a recent article for Cultured Vultures about a list of foreign films Martin Scorsese deemed essential to film students from all walks of life (it’s a really good list, too), I also saw a lot of nonsense about the argument that is still going on over whether or not Boyhood should have beaten out Birdman for the Best Picture Oscar.
I don’t have a problem with that argument. I also don’t have a problem with people who prefer foreign films. What is driving me to wish for a meteor the size of North America bearing a redneck zombie apocalypse are people who believe their favorite film aesthetic should be everyone’s favorite film aesthetic. These are probably the same people who will tell you why you’re a goddamn idiot for preferring an English remake of a foreign film.
It’s possible that I’m just not very fond of people right now. Then again, I seem to use that excuse an awful lot. Either way, I was reminded of the facets within film fandom I absolutely can’t stand, and it left me feeling like that when it comes to arguments or just conversations about art, we really shouldn’t be allowed to have nice things.
I like passion. I love discourse. I like arguments that seem to fill in the blanks for your heartbeat. What I’m sick to shit of are snobs, and it seems like people who honestly believe their aesthetic choices hold sway over all others are more prevalent on the internet than ever. It gets to the point where people resent films like Birdman or Boyhood without actually seeing them. The more argumentative and abusive people seem to be, the more likely it is that you associate that personality type with the movie they are advocating. And at that point, your mind is already made up. If that jackass who won’t leave the comments section of an AV Club news story alone feels so strongly about foreign films, then it’s probably not going to be something you will enjoy.
This is all very shocking, I know. People behaving like caricatures of demonic children on the internet. The scandal will surely devour us all. I don’t even know why I’m more annoyed by people who can’t have a rational battle of opposing cinematic sensibilities than I usually am. I suppose it revolves around my love/hate relationship with social media. If social media deserves credit for anything, it’s for making people with strong opinions more insufferable than at any other point in history. The only time my enthusiasm for film really takes a beating is when I spend too much time on Reddit, Tumblr, or anywhere else with a strong, ongoing film school presence. I can live with being told I’m wrong, but I can only put up with someone aggressively emphasizing that point for so long.
I’m not calling for an end to arguing about movies on the internet. I’m not quite that stupid or cranky yet. I’m not even telling you to play nice (but still, you should try your best to not be a dick). I suppose I’m just telling you to be secure in what you love about movies, to have an open mind about movies, and to maybe spend less time arguing about movies, and more time watching them.
But keep reading this column Read the hell out of this column.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015): B
January and February are traditionally those magical months of the year in which a studio dumps something that they never should have made in the first place on an unsuspecting public. If it makes money, great. If it doesn’t, the foreign market might save the day. If that doesn’t work, someone winds up having a “mysterious” heart attack on the toilet.
These are the rules, but thank god that means there are also rulebreakers. Movies like Kingsman: The Secret Service go against the expectations we have for new movies during this time of the year, and they prove to be worth their weight in a thousand dreadful piles of cinematic waste.
I can’t pretend there is anything extraordinary about Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) and his latest comic book adaptation. In fact, there are occasionally moments in Kingsman that could perhaps be seen as sillier than Vaughn intended. Even so, for the most part, Kingsman has a lot to enjoy. From action sequences that are genuinely thrilling, to great performances from Collin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, and newcomer Taron Egerton (as the kid who miraculously has the background and ambition to become a British secret agent), to a sense of humor that more often than not avoids being smug, Kingsman is solid stuff.
It is a relatively minor entry in the ever-growing universe of comic book movies, but this ultraviolent blend of Kick-Ass, The Avengers (the spy show), and James Bond is a welcome candidate for movies that are worth seeing at the start of the new year.
Love is Strange (2014): A
It is a small shame that this small gem of a movie was pretty much ignored by the Academy. Hardly the most significant movie about gay marriage you’re ever going to see, Love is Strange nonetheless has a low-key way of completely knocking you over.
The film clearly endeavors to focus on the people who are forced to deal with the machinations of the law, and it succeeds in this. It succeeds because Alfred Molina and John Lithgow are two brilliant, diverse actors, playing George and Ben respectively. Both men often have to settle for being memorable supporting players. With Love is Strange, they get the opportunity to be the focal point of the film, as a couple who marries after thirty-nine years of being together, and is then forced to deal with cruel, unforeseen consequences in the aftermath.
As we watch them deal with finding new living arrangements, after one is fired from his teaching job at a Manhattan Catholic school, we not only see what being together for so long has done to them, but we also see how the people around them react to their trying circumstances. Love is Strange is focused on Lithgow and Molina’s story, but throughout the movie, it also touches on other ideas and expressions of love through the friends and family surrounding the lives of Molina and Lithgow’s believable, relatable characters. It is not a particularly political piece, but Love is Strange does make it very clear that both internal and external forces shape relationships, dictate struggles, and prove whether or not a certain example of love can endure.
I won’t tell you if Ben and George endure. I will tell you that it is almost a certainty that you’re going to be rooting for them.
Still Alice (2014): B-
Without Julianne Moore, who has been turning out “Oscar-worthy” performances for over twenty years, it is hard to imagine recommending Still Alice to anyone.
It wants to tell a very important story about a woman who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at a fairly young age, and the ways in which she deals with that information, but other films have already told stories along those lines. In its basic premise, Still Alice is not remarkable. Still Alice strives to be unique by focusing very intensely on the disintegration of the mind. It embraces accuracy in relating Alice’s slow, steady march to the inevitable death of even her most basic motor skills. If you have gone through this with someone you love, Still Alice is going to hurt.
However, Julianne Moore’s performance is the unique element in Still Alice that will be solely responsible for how deep this move gets inside your heart and your memories, or perhaps just your fears of losing control, or of watching someone else lose control. Over an hour and forty minutes, we watch a bright star of a human being grow dim. We occasionally touch on how her disease impacts those she loves (family members played by people like Alec Baldwin and Kirsten Stewart, both of whom are good). For the most part, this is Alice’s story, and it is a story that does not try to make things look noble or romantic. Still Alice maintains the ugly course of what this disease is capable of.
Naturally, this is not a pleasant thing to watch. Obviously, the Academy eats this shit up with a spoon. But I refuse to be cynical about Julianne Moore winning for what is essentially a less-pandering-than-usual brand of Oscar bait. Still Alice was clearly going to tell its story, awards be dammed. Julianne Moore was going to play this character with integrity and deep compassion, awards be dammed.
If you have a bias against Oscar winners, try to put Moore’s recent Best Actress win out of your mind. Focus instead on one of the most consistently talented actresses of the past quarter-century giving another great performance.
John Wick (2014): A-
John Wick makes a nice case for Keanu Reeves being a better actor than he generally gets credit for.
As far as Reeves is concerned, accents are not really his strong suit. Beyond that, he can be exceptionally effective and engaging in the right kind of movie.
John Wick is a basic revenge drama that is most certainly the right kind of movie for him. As John Wick, he exacts a simple approach to taking revenge on the gangsters who murdered his dog, a final gift from his late wife. Clearly, John just wanted to fuck something up to begin with, because grief is silly like that, but we don’t really care in the end. We want Keanu Reeves in the kind of action movie certain people swear they don’t make anymore (clearly, those people are idiots, but that’s beside the point). We want bad guys that are going to be fun fodder (Michael Nyqvist is excellent as a Russian mob boss). The body count has to break into the heavens. The choreography has to leave us momentarily breathless, and it does.
And just for the hell of it, Willem Dafoe is on hand to look like Denis Leary, pack guns to a Marilyn Manson-heavy soundtrack, and say the kind of noir-ish things we hope to hear in noir movies.
Because John Wick is essentially a very smooth, very enjoyable variation on the classic Hollywood noir film concept, with some martial arts thrown in for added measure. It is a supremely enjoyable, well-made, and even well-acted (more Ian McShane) movie. It is not only compelling evidence that Keanu Reeves is not in fact the worst actor on the planet, but it is also proves that when the right people are involved, old-school action is still very firmly a member of the new school.
Life Itself (2014): A+
The Academy has a lot to be embarrassed about, when it comes to the most Oscar ceremony. From snubbing Joan Rivers in their tribute to those who passed away, to snubbing black people in every single acting category, it was a decent list of poor choices this year. And it will be the shame of the Academy that the marvelous, moving Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself wasn’t nominated for a single thing. It was on the shortlist, but who the fuck really cares about the shortlist?
Exactly. No one.
If you don’t know who Roger Ebert is, this is a marvelous way to meet the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and film critic. Ebert was passionate about film, and he used the fame he picked up as a TV personality with Gene Siskel to highlight emerging cinematic talents. He was particularly thoughtful and insightful about filmmakers of color, taking certain filmmakers to heart, to the point of being able to assist their careers to some degree. Life Itself features interviews with these filmmakers, which is a long list that includes people like Martin Scorsese and Ava DuVernay. Both are in the documentary, and both express in their own ways why someone like Roger Ebert was so important to what they were trying to express as artists. Ebert’s wife Chazz is also prominently featured in Life Itself, discussing how she and Roger met, fell in love, and married fairly late in both of their lives.
In other words, this documentary from Hoop Dreams director Steve James (another director Ebert championed during his career) focuses on the myriad of people Ebert interacted with during his life. This makes for a beautiful tribute to an exceptional writer. The documentary also features Ebert himself, who consented to allow James to film him during what turned out to be the last few months of his life. Ebert’s battles against cancer are painful, as are the moments in which Chazz Ebert is visibly worn down by the intense strain cancer plays on a significant other. She is an extraordinary hero in this story, and in the fact that she worked so hard to bring this documentary to life. Ebert offers plenty of insight, but the true purpose of Life Itself is to inspire with passion. In this case, it is a passion for film, which can be seen as one of the many crucial facets to life itself.
Life Itself is also an example of a life that is well lived. The proof of that is in the legacy we leave behind with those who spent time in our company. Clearly, in the case of Roger Ebert, his legacy is a profound one.