Friday, 23 January 2015

Movie Review: Still Alice (2015)

In the world of cinema, there are a number of things that have become acceptable targets for ridicule by pretty much everyone: Battlefield Earth, Plan 9 From Outer Space and The Room are all great examples of this. One such thing that has its hunting season sign up all year round is anything connected with the now-dying phenomenon of Twilight, whether it’s the films themselves, the actors who starred in them or the people who are responsible for them. It may have grown tired, given how readily the world rightfully rained down on the series for years on end, but the after-effects still linger to this day. With the female lead from Twilight, Kristen Stewart, in today’s film, I find it hard to avoid talking about the connection, especially when it feels like the film itself is daring me to do so. After the jump, I’ll explain why: This is Still Alice.

The plot: Alice (Julianne Moore), a linguistics professor, is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. As her mental state begins to collapse and her husband (Alec Baldwin) and children (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parish and Kristen Stewart) do their best to help her, she tries to carry on with her life as best she can despite the disease.

As much as I would rather not go for the easy joke this time around and just focus on the film itself, Kristen’s role and how it is written essentially means I have to at least address it. Kristen Stewart plays Lydia, one of Alice’s daughters, who is trying to make it as a theatre actor and is shown performing in a rendition of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America. In the majority of Alice and Lydia’s conversations on screen, Alice keeps trying to convince Lydia to take up another career path or at least have a backup plan in case her acting gig doesn’t work out. This might be one of the most cynically-charged casting decisions I’ve seen; seriously, “jokes writing themselves” has never had more meaning than in this context. Now, even with my rather guilty enjoyment of the Twilight Saga, the only time I’ve seen Kristen Stewart try to convey any kind of emotion on screen was in Breaking Dawn Part 2. That movie, subsequently, featured Kristen’s worst acting in the entire series. However, believe it or not, Kristen Stewart really isn’t all that bad in this movie. Possibly out of having a better cast to interact with this time around, or maybe it’s because she’s only a supporting character, but nevertheless she doesn’t drag this movie down in any way. Not saying that her performance is all that stellar, but she’s at least able to act convincingly alongside Baldwin and Moore without looking completely out of her element.

Now to discuss the much-lauded highlight of the film, Julianne Moore in the title role, and it is here that I show my hand. The main reason I started out this review talking about Twilight of all things was to get rid of the easy joke early, but another reason for it was that this review needed some levity before getting into this. Simply put, Julianne Moore is positively heart-breaking in this film. Actually, that might not be strong enough wording; it’s more soul-crushing how tragic her character is and how fantastically she plays it. Moore is able to portray every stage of Alice’s steady decline in mental clarity without missing a single beat, delivering every stirring moment like this is the last film she’ll ever be in and she wants to leave on the best note of her career. Stone statues would be crying if they were in the cinema audience, which means that we have very little chance of leaving with any dry eyes. The film itself feels like Nightcrawler at times in how much of the film’s enjoyment is derived from the main character’s performance. Not to say that this is hilarious or creepy at any point like Gyllenhaal was in Nightcrawler, as Moore sells the tragedy that well at times that it gets genuinely uneasy to watch for all the right reasons.

However, there are unfortunately a few aspects of this film that make this uneasy to watch for all the wrong reasons. To start with our most literal example, the cinematography is rather questionable in this movie. A lot of the camera work in this film puts focus on Alice while blurring everything else. Now, admittedly, this does make thematic sense and is a good idea in theory, but consider that there are several shots in this film where the majority of the frame is the background with Alice only taking up some of it, meaning that most of the shot is heavily out of focus. In record time, this becomes rather painful to look at so thankfully it happens infrequently enough for the film to still be watchable. There’s also a few plot points that are never followed up on, the glaring of which being the nature of Alice’s Alzheimer’s. *SPOILERS* Since it’s genetic, her children get tested for it… but the results of said testing never factor back into the plot; one of them came out positive, but it is never mentioned again past that scene. They don’t explore the repercussions of this news or even use it as a way to bring characters together through that connection, instead just letting it drop off of the face of the film. The ending is also a non-event; it doesn’t wrap up anything or even leave us on that emotional a note. It just stops dead.

All in all, even with the technical and narrative hang-ups I have with this film, Julianne Moore in the lead role is just that good that it forgives all sins. If you want a film that can let out some cathartic waterworks, this is a sure-fire winner. It just falls short of Wild, which is better from a technical standpoint, but it definitely ranks higher than Unbroken, since this film got me to empathize with the character’s plight far better. Nevertheless, while I may give a higher recommendation to Wild overall, in terms of acting there’s no question: This meets all of the critical hype surrounding it in that regard and must be seen.

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