Still Alice reviews

Big Magilla
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Re: Still Alice reviews

Postby Big Magilla » Tue Sep 09, 2014 10:51 am

All it lacks is a distributor. Are you listening, Harvey?

Mister Tee
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Still Alice reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Tue Sep 09, 2014 9:50 am

Just when it seemed nothing especially Oscar-interesting would happen at Toronto, this appeared.

It's a pretty open secret that this year's best actress field looks thin: former winner Witherspoon is the only seemingly sure candidate (Chastain in Eleanor Rigby, maybve, but Harvey seems determined to sabotage that film out of spite the way he did Snowpiercer), and most prognosticators have sight-unseen Amy Adams and Rosamund Pike highlighted because...well, who else?

This new arrival is not a sure thing -- all the mentions of "low-key" and "subtle" make one wonder if there might not be quite enough "acting" to win over voters. But the Alzheimer's thing has got nominations (Iris) and a win (The Iron Lady), and surely Julianne Moore is the sort of proven veteran Academy members would like to honor, for a film that's getting a largely positive reaction. The film doesn't have a distributor (or, naturally, an opening date) yet. But you'd think someone would look at the fallow field of competition, snap the film up, give it a December opening, and hope some critical help could give Moore her Crazy Heart.


Peter Debruge
Chief International Film Critic@AskDebruge

When the movies deal with Alzheimer’s, they nearly always approach it from the vantage of the family members who are painfully forgotten as loved ones lose their memories. “Still Alice” shows the process from the victim’s p.o.v., and suddenly the disease isn’t just something sad that happens to other people, but a condition we can relate to firsthand. Julianne Moore guides us through the tragic arc of how it must feel to disappear before one’s own eyes, accomplishing one of her most powerful performances by underplaying the scenario — a low-key approach that should serve this dignified indie well in limited release.

Based on the novel by neuroscientist Lisa Genova, “Still Alice” gives new meaning to the phrase, “It happens to the best of us.” Columbia professor Alice Howland is the sort of character who, even without Alzheimer’s to contend with, is accomplished and interesting enough to warrant her own movie. She has achieved much in her 50-odd years, both as a respected scholar and mother of three grown children, played by Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish.

For the otherwise healthy Alice, there’s no good reason why Alzheimer’s should strike now, nearly 15 years before it traditionally occurs, although, as her doctor points out, the condition can actually be harder to diagnose in intelligent people, since they’re capable of devising elaborate work-arounds that mask the problem. Genova’s book hit especially close to home for husband-and-husband helmers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (“Quinceanera”), since Glatzer suffers from ALS — another degenerative condition that systematically attacks one’s sense of self.

At first, it’s just a word that goes missing in the middle of one of Alice’s linguistics lectures. But the situation gets scarier when she loses track of where she is during her daily jog. Since Alice’s disease involves short-term memory loss, a number of the tests she faces are ones the audience can take alongside, with the inevitable result that we start to reflect on the blind spots in our memory. Forgetting things isn’t unusual even among perfectly healthy adults, making it easy to identify with Moore, who plays her initial concerns quite casually.

It’s not until Alice learns that the disease is hereditary that the severity of her situation sets in: As if it weren’t bad enough that she will eventually cease to recognize her own children, Alice may also be responsible for passing the condition along to them. This is a tragedy, pure and simple, and yet the directing duo refuses to milk the family’s situation for easy tears. Instead, the idea is to put us inside Alice’s head. We experience disorientation as she would, suggested by a shallow depth of field where things shown out of focus appear to be just beyond her comprehension.

Alice’s diagnosis calls for a form of grieving, during which she tries coming to terms with the fact that life as it had previously existed is now over. She tells the department chair at Columbia U., where she taught, about her Alzheimer’s and is promptly dismissed from her position. She gets lost in her own home and is easily overwhelmed whenever she steps out of it. Though her husband John (Alec Balwin) aims to be supportive, he refuses to let her condition derail his own professional life. Alice begs him to take a year off work so they can be together before she’s too far gone to experience her own life, making visits to retirement homes and making contingency plans (a bottle of sleeping pills stashed at the back of a dresser drawer) for the day when she can no longer answer a series of personal questions about her life.

The directorial couple must have gone through something very similar when Glatzer’s ALS kicked in, forcing him to accept that his body had become his greatest enemy. The pair bring that personal connection to the writing process, emphasizing Alice’s emotions over those of her various family members — although Stewart, whose character steps in as caregiver at one point, gets several intimate, unshowy scenes with Moore. The helmers have made a conscious decision to keep things quiet, commissioning a score from British composer that doesn’t tell you how to feel, but rather how she feels: lost, emotional and anxious most of the time.

Clearly, Glatzer has not yet given up, and neither does Alice, despite her relatively rapid degeneration. It’s a devastating thing to watch the light of recognition dwindle in her eyes, to see the assertive, confident lecturer that she had so recently been reduced to the nervous, scared woman we see delivering one last speech at an Alzheimer’s society confab. After the stiff lifelessness of “The Last of Robin Hood,” the helmers have made a near-total recovery, shooting things in such a way that activity is constantly spilling beyond the edges of the frame, giving the impression that characters’ lives continue when they’re not on camera, even as Alice’s seems to be closing in around her. Just as her kids look for ever-fainter signs of their mother behind those eyes, we lean in to watch Moore the actress turn invisible within her own skin.

Hollywood Reporter
by Deborah Young

The Bottom Line
This milestone film on Alzheimer’s draws its power from Moore’s emotionally restrained but very potent central performance

With some five million Americans (and 36 million worldwide) living with Alzheimer’s disease, the warm, compassionate but bitingly honest Still Alice will touch home for many people. The toll the disease takes on the life of a brilliant linguistics professor is superbly detailed by Julianne Moore in a career-high performance, driving straight to the terror of the disease and its power to wipe out personal certainties and identity. Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, the screenplay is faithful to Lisa Genova’s best-selling novel which has a fan base of its own.

Rather than focus on the destructive effect of the disease on relationships, the drama dives deep into how one woman experiences her own deteriorating condition, placing all the emphasis on Moore’s face and reactions, her vulnerability seesawing with her strength. This insider’s account would be a tall order for any actor to fill without resorting to sentimentality or falling into the obvious, but she never loses control of the film for a second, with able support from Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish as family members. The involvement of the Alzheimer’s Association and executive producing names like Christine Vachon, Maria Shriver and Trudie Styler will offer an additional leg up, although word of mouth should provide the strongest incentive for audiences leery of the topic.

Alice Howland (Moore) is a vivacious, charming 50-year-old New Yorker — a respected intellectual who is a precision communicator. Her loving husband, John (Baldwin), calls her the smartest, most beautiful woman he’s ever met, and their three grown children — Anna (Bosworth), Tom (Parrish) and aspiring actress Lydia (Stewart) — are, if not success stories, at least making their way in life. Alice has it all — until she begins to forget words, which are her livelihood as a Columbia linguistics teacher, and worse, starts to lose her bearings in familiar places. She’s frightened enough to consult a neurologist who rules out a brain tumor, but hypothesizes early-onset Alzheimer’s, a rare form of the disease that strikes people under 65.

Alice’s first reaction is to hide it, but after getting confused about a dinner guest, she makes her husband privy to her fears. As her doctor tells them bluntly, her disease is genetic and the chances of their children contracting it are 50 percent. It falls on the family like a bomb, especially when one of the kids tests positive for the rogue gene. But this bad news is quickly sidelined by Alice’s own mental decline as the disease makes terrible, swift progress. While her family tries to cope with the situation, or miserably fails to do so, the cast’s ensemble performance brings out their true colors, including some surprising role changes.

Despite a two-hour running time, the drama is swift-moving, perhaps because the viewer dreads the disease's progression and wishes time would stop for poor Alice. But it doesn't stop, and step by step she descends the cognitive ladder, not suffering so much as struggling to stay connected. In one standout scene, she stumbles onto suicide instructions she has left for herself on her computer. Though this is one of the film's most intense scenes, the directors are able to slip in a moment's humor to lighten things up.

Not all is doom and gloom here. Another key scene has Alice invited to address an Alzheimer's conference. Her anxious preparations end in a triumphant monologue about her condition that is truly touching.

Westmoreland and Glatzer have created drama around the porn industry (The Fluffer), the Mexican community in Los Angeles (Quinceanera) and Errol Flynn’s last fling with a teenage girl (The Last of Robin Hood.) Still Alice has a concentration and urgency in the telling that the other films lack. Although not known for daring cinematic fireworks or experimentation, the directors tackle a subject where a restrained, understated approach is the best insurance against sloppy sentimentality. It pays off handsomely in the film’s closing moments, a poignant, poetic confrontation between the generations that draws the best from Moore and reveals unexpected depth in Stewart. The film's extremely personal feeling is surely related to the fact that Glatzer directed it while undergoing a health crisis of his own — after being diagnosed with ALS, he had to co-direct the movie on an iPad using a text-to-speech app.

Tech work remains humbly in the background, all in the service of keeping the spotlight focused on Moore and mimicking her feelings with an out-of-focus camera, costumes she no longer chooses herself and so on.

Screen Daily
Tim Grierson

Offered as proof that there actually might be some things worse than death — or at least more heartbreaking — the exquisite Still Alice presents the sad story of Alice Howland, a brilliant linguistics professor decimated by early-onset Alzheimer’s. A melodrama of substance, the new film from writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (Quinceañera) is led by a precise performance from Julianne Moore, but the film is really an ensemble piece that looks closely at one family’s struggles when its matriarch is alive but slowly losing herself piece by piece.

Still Alice premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and should be an art-house player thanks to a cast that also includes Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart and Kate Bosworth. Good reviews for Moore’s performance will attract viewers, and readers of the source material (Lisa Genova’s original novel) may be intrigued as well. Although there might be a concern that the subject will be too heavy for some audiences, the modest indie success of the low-budget Away From Her (also about Alzheimer’s) suggests that discriminating crowds will be game.

Moore plays Alice, an author who lectures on linguistics and teaches at Columbia University as the film begins. But tragedy is about to intervene: Even though she’s only 50, she notices that she keeps forgetting vital things, such as where she is when going for a jog through New York City, even though she’s taken the route many times before. Soon after, she’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, being told by her doctor that the condition will only get worse. The bulk of the film concerns how she and her family, including her husband John (Baldwin) and daughters Lydia (Stewart) and Anna (Bosworth), cope with the news.

Preferring a spare, understated style, Glatzer and Westmoreland mostly let the inherent sadness of the situation speak for itself. (Occasionally, though, Ilan Eshkeri’s score can become a little self-consciously frenetic, a clumsy attempt to echo Alice’s panic at her worsening memory loss.) But despite the rare tonal lapses, the film does a remarkable job of homing in on the story’s core terror: Alice is still physically well and could live a long life, but her essence — her mind, her memories and her spark — will soon disappear forever.

In the wrong hands, this is the stuff of disease-of-the-week sentimentality, but Still Alice stays away from that terrain by focusing less on the illness than on the emotional effects it has on all involved. Of course, the movie is most interested in Alice’s reactions to her diagnosis, but no one in her immediate circle is immune to these changes. Baldwin is particularly good as an ambitious medical researcher who is losing not just his wife but also a woman who was as driven as he was. John shows plenty of compassion for Alice, but Baldwin also reveals the cracks in the husband’s patience, powerless to bring back the woman he once knew, even though she’s right there.

Still Alice is such a rich, well-observed piece that it even finds time to flesh out Alice’s daughters. In the beginning, Anna is the favoured, successful child while Lydia is the disappointment floundering in a go-nowhere acting career out in Los Angeles. But once Alice’s condition is spotted, the two daughters respond in different ways and for very specific, understandable reasons. With nuance, Bosworth and Stewart both play women who seem to have been profoundly shaped by their impressive mother, and we feel the characters’ confusion at having her influence suddenly ripped away from them. (Stewart especially shines, initially playing a prototypical starving-artist type who surprises her family by her response to Alice’s diagnosis.)

As for Moore, this is one of her most complete, layered performances. Almost 20 years ago, she starred in filmmaker Todd Haynes’ Safe, a revelatory social parable-cum-psychological horror movie about a housewife seemingly allergic to the entire world. The more realistic Still Alice finds her again felled by an invisible malady — one just as frightening — and it’s interesting to note her ability in both films to elicit our sympathy so easily. Expertly modulating her facial expressions as Alice becomes more childlike as her disease advances, Moore externalises the character’s anger and fear, the sense that she can feel her mind going but can’t reverse the damage. But at the same time, it’s not an overly showy performance: There aren’t a lot of for-you-consideration grand dramatic scenes, a modesty that makes Alice’s slow descent all the more painful and human.

To be sure, some will find Still Alice too depressing, too mawkish or too insular to embrace. (Because the Howlands are a well-to-do family, it’s inevitable that a criticism levelled against the film will be that it reeks of upper-class privilege.) But such complaints seem petty in the face of such a quiet, absorbing film. Tearjerkers get a bad rap because of how shamelessly manipulative they are, but Still Alice earns its tears by exploring emotional terrain with restraint and insight. This is a movie about a woman with Alzheimer’s, but it’s really about a family reassessing its bonds. And although none of the characters mentions death, this is one of the most poignant movies about mortality in quite a while: The Howlands are grieving for a person who isn’t actually going anywhere, except in all the ways that really count.

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