Still Alice


Julianne Moore may have Oscar's pulse.

Julianne Moore may have Oscar’s pulse.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Shane McRae, Hunter Parrish, Seth Gilliam, Stephen Kunken, Erin Drake, Daniel Gerroll, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Maxine Prescott, Orlagh Cassidy, Rosa Arredondo, Zillah Glory, Caridad Montanez, Caleb Freundlich, Charlotte Robson, Jean Burns, Erin Drake. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

Some movies benefit from strong storylines, great special effects or subject matter that is timely. Still others benefit from perfect or near-perfect casting, with a performance that elevates the movie from merely ordinary into something else.

Dr. Alice Howland (Moore) is a brilliant linguist, a respected professor at Columbia University and an author of what is pretty much the definitive textbook on the subject. She lives in a beautiful Manhattan apartment with her husband John (Baldwin), himself a talented and in-demand research physician. Their three adult kids are Tom (Parrish), a promising med school student, Anna (Bosworth) who is married to Charlie (McRae) and who is trying to get pregnant, and the black sheep Lydia (Stewart) who alone lives in Los Angeles (the others are all clustered near New York) and is trying to get an acting career started, although her mother nags her to go to college because she considers acting a waste of Lydia’s intellect.

But then she begins to forget words and names, forget where she put her keys. All signs, her husband assures her, of growing older; the memory is one of the first things to go. But then she goes for a run around Columbia and stops suddenly, terrified; she doesn’t recognize a thing, it’s a completely alien place, even though she has been teaching on this very campus for 20 years. She goes to see a neurologist (Kunken), privately. No tumors. Nothing to really explain what is causing these memory lapses. Then comes the MRI and the news couldn’t be worse; early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Alice is devastated As an academic, she has built a career and a life based around the power of her mind. Now that is to all be stripped away from her. Alice is a fighter however; she uses memory techniques to keep hold of the important things. Her family rallies around her, although John longs for escape and is seriously considering a position at the Mayo Clinic which would be great for his career but would rob him of a year with his wife, possibly her last year as herself. The sort of Alzheimer’s that Alice has is genetic, which means her kids might be carriers. This gives Alice an enormous sense of guilt when one of them turns out to be positive for the disease as well.

Alice can’t imagine life as essentially a vegetable and as we watch her deteriorate and her frustration grows, we see those around her change as well. The devastation her disease creates not just to Alice which is observable, is heart-breaking. Still, being who she is, she has devised a way out, to spare her family the worst of her disease. Will she be able to take it?

Based on the novel by Susan Genova, the movie is a bit rote in terms of how it follows movies of similar coping with disease themes; small symptoms, easily dismissed, leading to larger symptoms, not so easily dismissed, followed by the diagnosis which is excruciating in its own right followed by the repercussions of the disease itself. I suppose most diseases follow the same timeline in reality but there is nothing particularly adventurous in the way the movie handles the subject.

What works here is Moore’s performance. She’s already won the Golden Globe for her work here, along with every significant acting award with only the Jewel in the Crown, the Oscar, waiting in the wings and she’s the odds-on favorite for adding it to her collection. This is absolutely scintillating work, as we watch the terrible progression of the disease. Moore humanizes the character; you feel for her but she doesn’t make Alice pitiable but rather as strong as anyone can be in the face of a disease that robs you of who you are. This is easily one of the best performances of the year and certainly worth the accolades she has received and should she win the Oscar, I don’t think anyone can really argue with it.

Baldwin actually does a pretty good job himself. He tends to play characters who are much more smarmy than this one, but this is a little bit out of his comfort zone in a lot of ways. There is a scene where John breaks down with Lydia, which summarizes the hardship this has been on him, caring for his wife and watching her slip away from him. It’s a heartbreaking moment and one of the worthier moments of the film because it is arrived at honestly. Not all the moments in the film are like that.

Stewart still remains an actress I have trouble connecting to. It’s not just because of her Twilight connection either; it’s just that there is a wall between her and me – maybe not for everyone in the audience, but for whatever reason I can’t seem to penetrate it. There is a disingenuous vibe about her that just makes me feel like she’s acting rather than creating a personality. Maybe it’s just me being unfair to her and I will cop to the possibility that it’s true, but she has yet to truly inspire me in any role she’s played to date.

I can’t say that this is a great film but it is a decent film that is elevated by the performance of its star. Without Moore, this would be just passable, worth the time only if you’re either interested in the subject matter or have seen most of the other items that are in theaters at that moment. With Moore, this is powerful in places and dominated by an actress who’s at the very top of her game. See this for Moore; it’s one of those sorts of performances that you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-worthy performance by Moore. Baldwin provides strong support.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally wanders into the land of treacle.
FAMILY VALUES: The overall theme is pretty adult. There is some occasional profanity as well as a sexual reference.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Co-director Richard Glatzer suffers from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and is unable to speak; he used a text-to-speech app on his iPad to communicate with cast and crew.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Folks!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Project Almanac

The Ghost Writer


The Ghost Writer

A day at the office is no day at the beach for Ewan McGregor.

(2010) Thriller (Summit) Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach, Robert Pugh, Desiree Erasmus, Daniel Sutton, Marianne Graffam, James Belushi, Kate Copeland. Directed by Roman Polanski

Politics make strange bedfellows with just about everything but particularly with art. Although we have an affinity for topical movies, political thrillers are often about as empty and soulless as…as…a politician.

The Ghost (McGregor) – who is never identified by name in the movie nor in the book that it is based on – is a talented and ambitious sort who has been waiting, none too patiently, for a plum job, the one that will get his career in gear. He finally gets it – former British Prime Minister Robert Lang (Brosnan) wants his memoirs ghosted. It seems that the old friend of Lang’s who had previously been working on the assignment had washed up on the beach, a victim of suicide or accidental drowning.

The Ghost ventures out to Martha’s Vineyard to Lang’s bunker-like complex which is in siege mode. Lang has been accused by one of his former ministers of being complicit of allowing prisoners to be tortured during an armed conflict begun during his regime. Obviously this makes the new book even more potentially lucrative and the Ghost is under pressure to finish the manuscript quickly.

Things are a bit strange though in the compound. Lang’s high-strung wife Ruth (Williams) is coming on to the Ghost, fully aware of the long-time affair her husband has been having with his assistant Amelia Bly (Cattrall). The original manuscript the Ghost has been hired to clean up and re-edit is under lock and key and may not be taken out of the office where the Ghost has been assigned to work.

And work he does, diligently. He soon discovers some contradictions and outright falsehoods in the manuscript. As he digs deeper to discover the truth, he finds out the shady dealings between Lang and a company called Hatherton. He also discovers some secrets that some would kill to make sure they remained secret. Now it’s not just a battle to meet a deadline; the Ghost must figure out a way to stay alive altogether.

Polanski is one of the best of his generation and creating an effective thriller. Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby are just two examples of classic Polanski thrillers. This one, completed when Polanski was 76 years old, shows he hasn’t lost his touch. While it isn’t to the level of those just mentioned, it’s as good as any released by more contemporary directors.

Polanski manages to gather a strong cast around him. McGregor is a fine everyman hero, and while he seems far more passive-aggressive than the standard movie hero, he nonetheless is charming enough to carry his end of the water pole. The end carried by Brosnan, however, is much stronger. Brosnan who has mostly done affable and elegant action hero types (a la “Remington Steel”, James Bond and Thomas Crown) delivers one of his better performances ever here. He is both sinister and snake-like, clapping you on the back one moment and stabbing you in it the next. That dichotomy of charm and ruthlessness makes the character as fascinating a political figure as has ever been on the silver screen.

They are surrounded by a strong cast, including Hutton as the Ghost’s hyperactive agent and Wilkinson, an old classmate of Lang’s who knows far more about his chicanery than he lets on. Wilkinson in fact has few scenes but is in definite control of your attention whenever he’s on.

There are some twists and turns here. That is par for the course for a thriller, but few are telegraphed and none stretch the believability quotient. What Polanski does better than most directors is establish a mood, and he does so brilliantly here, making even characters seen in passing seem menacing and up to no good.

The movie didn’t do very well at the box office (see below), mostly due to Polanski’s arrest on a 34-year-old statutory rape charge and his subsequent fight to prevent extradition. I would imagine a number of movie-goers who might have ordinarily flocked to see this stayed away because of an unwillingness to support a rapist. I can understand the sentiment certainly but this isn’t a review of Mr. Polanski’s life but of a single film he created.

Political thrillers are hard to accomplish, particularly when they are as topical as this one is (the characters are extremely similar to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with other characters and entities – such as Hatherton substituting for Halliburton  – also carrying some similarities to people and things in the news). There is always the chance that in a very few years this will seem dated. However the movie is so well-crafted that long after the people and events that inspired it are forgotten, The Ghost Writer will hold up as a well-crafted, well-acted and well-written thriller.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressively tense. Fine performances from most of the cast but particularly from McGregor and Wilkinson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The payoff is a bit anti-climactic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some rough language, a bit of violence, a bit of sexuality and a smidgeon of nudity and a drug reference.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although primarily set in the United States, Polanski was unable to film here due to his legal issues. Most of the movie was filmed in Europe except for a few second unit shots.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.2M on a $45M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Buck