Review: Still Alice

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Still Alice

The Pitch: Moore is less.

The Review: I often have conversations with people regarding my love of horror films, and if any genre is divisive in whether or not people wish to be part of the audience then it would be that one. People ask me why I love horror movies, and some of it is that feeling of safe risk: deep down we know that there isn’t a finger-clawed maniac haunting our dreams or a giant in a hockey mask waiting round the corner to chop us into tiny pieces. What I do find more uncomfortable is that within the real world, the true horror that is the simple passage of time, as each of us inexorably presses forward to a point when we will simply cease to be. For me, the greatest fear in that is the possibility of losing one’s sense of self on the downward march towards infirmity, and conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s represent the pinnacle of that fear, the risk that we may become slowly and painfully unable to function and in the process become an increasing burden on friends and family.

The story of Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) brings that fear into sharp focus, as we experience life through her eyes from the point when her memory starts to fail her in the subtlest of ways to such time as her mental faculties have become completely withdrawn. Howland is a linguistics professor and so already has a keener insight than most into the inner workings of the mind, but when hers begins to fail at a young enough age for the doctors to invoke the words “early onset” even she seems unprepared for the effects that her mind’s disintegration will have on her, her husband (Alec Baldwin) and her grown-up children (Kristin Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish). While trying to maintain a quality of life as best she can, Howland also puts into place plans to attempt to control her destiny once rational thought has begun to elude her, but the uncertainty of her illness has a greater effect than even she can foresee.

This feels a very personal film for writer / director pair Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, even before you consider that Glatzer’s life was ended while the Best Actress Oscar was barely on Julianne Moore’s mantlepiece. Glatzer succumbed to another debilitating condition in the form of ALS or motor neurone disease which he endured during the production of the film. Whether despite this or because of it, Still Alice for the large part steers clear of mawkishness and sentimentality, and it as its best when allowing you to absorb the impact of Howland’s disintegration in more subtle ways. Many scenes initially feel edited together strangely, but you soon come to realise that we are witnessing the story through Howland’s eyes and these lapses become symptomatic of her condition. Even so, the film wouldn’t retain the power it does without Moore’s devastating performance at its heart, one which deserves all of its recent accolades and which is the dramatic core of the film to a huge extent. All of Moore’s previous Oscar nominations came over a decade ago and while I think it would be unfair to call this film a renaissance for her career, it’s still a timely reminder that she remains one of the best actresses of her generation and the film would probably have sunk without trace without her. Even so, one grandstanding speech late on feels slightly at odds with everything else happening.

Consequently, as Moore’s character loses her grip on normal functioning so the story slightly loses its grip on many of the other narrative threads weaving out from her story. The best of these subplots concern Moore’s relationship with her younger daughter, and Kristin Stewart gets a chance us to remind us of her range after all those years of blankly wandering through Twilight and Snow White films. Sadly few of the other supporting characters get a look in, and both husband Baldwin and elder daughter Bosworth’s stories feel critically underdeveloped, not least when it’s revealed that Bosworth has tested positive for the same hereditary condition as her mother. I can’t speak from personal experience for how well the film actually captures the family experience of suffering through Alzheimer’s but it certainly doesn’t feel false. However the lack of histrionics doesn’t always serve the film’s best interests and you may find yourself frustrated that the family’s trauma becomes largely sidelined in favour of Moore’s story. If a film such as this helps to raise awareness of the horrible reality faced by people blighted by such afflictions then so much the better, but it’s Julianne Moore and her alone which really bring Still Alice to life and make it worth your time.

Why see it at the cinema: Seeing the film on a big screen helps you to allow the film to capture your full attention; consequently the rug pulls when you realise time is passing and you’ve become unaware feel all the more powerful.

What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent strong language and moderate sex references.

My cinema experience: I’d originally planned to see White God at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on a Friday evening, but some unanticipated roadworks put half an hour on my journey. Thankfully the helpfulness of the staff when I arrived at the cinema late managed to sort out a replacement film, so I saw Still Alice in its place.

The end of the film took a few people by surprise, so there was more than a certain amount of chatter in the foyer afterwards. As a people watcher I love to grab snippets of this as people walk past, and the general consensus seems to be that this is Moore’s film. Can’t disagree with that.

The Score: 7/10

Big Screen Review: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

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The Pitch: Reboot Of The Reboot Of The Planet Of The Apes.

The Review: It’s surely the dream of any film studio to launch a successful franchise, and few over the years have been as successful as the Planet Of The Apes movies. The original series of five films then spawned two television series, a live action and an animation, and like many such franchises it felt ripe for rebooting as we entered the 21st century. Tim Burton, however, made such a hash of it, with a tedious plot and utterly nonsensical ending, that we’ve had to wait ten years for the next attempt. One thing that all of the previous incarnations had in common was that they had essentially human characters in ape clothing, repeatedly stretching the boundaries of what was possible with make-up and other techniques. The Tim Burton iteration took that look closer to monkey than man, but it was still essentially subject to the restrictions of a man in a suit.

The original was released in the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the latter’s benchmark for visual effects has been surpassed so many times that we’re now in a position to be able to use entirely special effect monkeys, without the need for any make-up at all. The joys of motion capture and the seamless integration of visual effects means that men covered in tight lycra suits and ping-pong balls can now act out a scene with more normally attired people, and be seamlessly replaced in post-production with something that closely enough resembles an actual primate that it won’t take you out of the story, and that a key early plot point about changes in the apes’ irises can be easily realised with dramatic zooms and close-ups. Just to be on the safe side, it’s worth having experts in the technology, so both Weta’s digital magic and Andy Serkis’ monkeying around in a stupid outfit get rolled out here again after their first memorable team up in the King Kong remake.

No amount of special effects, though, can cover up a weak story, so it’s refreshing that Rise… has managed to find such a compelling new take on old material. Here it’s a potential cure for Alzheimer’s that kicks things off. James Franco is reasonable as the young scientist who keeps his project going when his company try to shut it down, and uses father John Lithgow as a guinea pig (not literally, although it would be amazing to see what Weta could do with that). Other than that, it’s a slightly eclectic cast, with Frieda Pinto and Brian Cox doing what they can with slightly thin roles, but the juiciest other human role goes to Tom Felton, and he gets to be far more believably dastardly here than he ever managed to be as Draco Malfoy.

But the stars of the show are the apes, not least Serkis who has the animal acting down to a fine art and crucially invests Caesar with enough believable behaviours to go with the digital wizardry on show. The rest of the apes are filled out by stunt performers and others with backgrounds in this type of work, which is starting to become a serious niche in the acting world, and despite a slightly cartoonish look to some of the young apes, the adults are all incredibly rendered and you will struggle to distinguish some, such as Maurice the organgutan, from the real thing. So the apes are virtually flawless, and end up being the stars of their own prison movie (maybe no surprise, given director Rupert Wyatt’s previous form on The Escapist). The plot bubbles along nicely, and builds slowly, not feeling the need of many summer blockbusters to show its hand too early, and culminates in a well thought out set-piece on the Golden Gate bridge which doesn’t lose sight of the needs to service its characters in among the carnage. Rise… is a very satisfying addition to the Apes mythology, with some subtle (and some more blatant) nods to previous films, this one stands apart, but might well be the first in another successful simian series.

Why see it at the cinema: Some of the apes are just astonishing, and many of the grown-up monkeys will have you forgetting you’re watching animated characters. The Golden Gate bridge scenes are also suitably epic and worth hunting down on the largest viewing area possible.

The Score: 8/10