In recent years, the legend of Lizzie Borden has spawned a number of movies, and even a TV series, but it seems this endless fascination with the gruesome murders of her father Andrew and stepmother Abby, and Lizzie herself, has yet to be satiated. Now we have another variation on the classic tale, but one that posits the idea of a lesbian relationship between Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) and the Bordens’ maid, Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), something that the author Ed McBain explored in his 1984 novel, Lizzie. True or not, writer Bryce Kass and director Craig William Mcneill appear to have created an atmospheric, and agitated movie that relies on deep rooted passions and a feverish sense of increasing dread in order to relay the events leading up to and following on from the events of 4 August 1892. Sevigny is a great choice for the troubled (and troubling) Lizzie, while Stewart, taking another step further away from the mainstream, looks to be just as good. The only proviso? The depiction of Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) as unremittingly horrible. Whereas the rest of the movie seems to be inhabiting psychological horror territory, his performance appears to be straight out of the Grand Guignol Book of Movie Villains. Still, trailers can be deceptive – and definitely not to be trusted, most of the time – but if this trailer is anything to go by, this might be more intriguing, and unnerving, than expected… and that final shot is undeniably chilling.
D: Jessica Sharzer / 89m
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Elizabeth Perkins, Steve Zahn, Michael Angarano, Allison Siko, Hallee Hirsh, D.B. Sweeney, Eric Lively, Robert John Burke, Leslie Lyles, Megan Pillar
It seems to be a truism that all actors and actresses only ever look forwards: to the next role, the next script, the next director in need of their talents. Ask them about past roles and a reluctance seems to set in. Oh, they’ll talk about the movies they made when they first started out, and they may even have fond memories of making some of them, but more often than not, it’s the next project that they’re really interested in. But audiences aren’t necessarily that focused, and fans even less so. They want the reassurance that said actor or actress will be making the same kind of movies that have made them famous. Familiarity breeds contentment, if you will. But what’s often interesting in an actor or actress’s career is the movies they made before they became truly famous, before they became a household name or achieved international recognition. Looking back can be just as advantageous as looking forward. After all, we know what they can do now, but what could they do back in the day?
Speak is a movie that Kristen Stewart made when she was just fourteen. It’s important to remember that, as the role of Melinda Sordino, a high school freshman who suffers a traumatic experience at a friend’s summer house party, requires her to portray a teenager you can actually identify with – and the reason she’s so good isn’t entirely because the character is well written. It’s as much a reflection on Stewart’s burgeoning talent as an actress as it is on the script by director Sharzer and co-writer Annie Young Frisbie (and itself an adaptation of the award-winning novel of the same name by Laurie Halse Anderson). Returning to school after the summer hiatus, Melinda finds herself ostracised by her friends, and treated like a pariah. The reason? At the party, Melinda called 911 but failed to tell the police why she was calling. However, the police traced her call and attended, prompting everyone to run for the hills (though why is never explained). Now, Melinda is regarded as a “squealer”.
With her best friend, Rachel (pronounced Rachelle) (Hirsh), ignoring her, and most of the other pupils whispering about her and giving her pointed looks, Melinda finds herself developing unexpected friendships with two fellow students, newbie Heather (Siko), and Melinda’s biology lab partner, Dave (Angarano). She also receives the help and support of her art teacher, Mr Freeman (Zahn), who encourages her to explore her feelings through an assignment he sets her. But still she struggles to deal with what happened to her at the party, something she’s told no one about, and something that stops her from trying to regain the friendships she used to have. As the school year progresses she begins to grow more confident in herself, and by its end has reached the conclusion that she needs to tell someone, anyone, about what happened to her. At first she wants to tell a stranger, but realises that there is only one person she should talk to. However, that person is Rachel, and what Melinda has to tell her may end their friendship for good.
Whatever your feelings about Kristen Stewart as an actress, it’s safe to say that the role of Bella in the Twilight saga was a game changer, and since that franchise ended in 2012, Stewart has made some eclectic choices and chosen a variety of roles and appeared in a variety of genres in order to escape being typecast as the somewhat dour heroine who rarely gets to smile. It was a straitjacket role, and there were times when Stewart seemed unable to give the role more than what was in the script. There are no such problems in Speak, a movie that looks at peer pressure in a compassionate, intelligent way, and how the devastating effects of a terrible experience can express themselves in ways that are positive and of benefit to the person concerned. Melinda’s ordeal is shown fairly early on, allowing the audience to sympathise with her and feel angry on her behalf. Of course, Melinda is still trying to deal with it all in her own way, and she seeks to withdraw from everyone while at the same time wishing everything could return to normal. Stewart highlights this dochotomy with an assurance that belies her age, and as Melinda’s emotions tug her this way and that, Stewart never loses sight of the different kinds of pain that she’s feeling, even as time goes on.
With Stewart giving such an impressive portrayal, it’s a shame that too much else stands out in poor relief. Melinda’s parents (Perkins, Sweeney) are too self-involved to even realise that their daughter is going through a bad time (even Melinda’s drawing lines on her lips in lieu of stitches is dismissed out of hand), and Burke’s racist history teacher bullies her in worse fashion than her friends (and gets away with it). And despite a good performance from Zahn, his freewheeling, rebellious art teacher feels contrived and/or stereotypical depending on the scene. But the main issue that may disappoint viewers is the idea that Melinda will spend much of the movie not speaking as a way of protesting what has, and is, happening to her. She even wonders how long it would take people to notice if she did. But in the end, she stays mute for two scenes and that is it for that idea. What could have made the movie more engrossing and challenging, instead is referenced on occasion and treated as a temporary affectation rather than a defined way of rebelling. At one point, Melinda is asked why a revolutionary is only as good as his or her analysis; she replies that you should know what you stand for, and not just what you’re against. This arrives too late to push the movie in a more dramatic direction, because even then Melinda’s avowal of this doesn’t mean that she’s any better equipped to deal with things or make a personal stand, just more determined to face up to them.
Having the action take place over a school year (with continual references to the holidays/special dates in order for the viewer to keep track of the time elapsing) means the movie is very episodic in nature, and as a result, it’s unable to maintain dramatic traction. Sharzer, whose sole feature credit this is so far, makes no effort to overcome this, leaving the viewer to wonder just what needs to happen to make Melinda start dealing with what happened to her. And too much of what does happen feels like it’s been lifted wholesale from other teen dramas, from the internal logic to the secondary characters to the way in which various subplots are left hanging as if waiting to be included in an extended director’s cut. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Speak is mostly shallow, but it doesn’t always reach the heights that Anderson’s novel attains, and its TV Movie of the Week veneer doesn’t help either. A bold choice, then, but one that lets down its source material, and in the process, its audience.
Rating: 6/10 – there’s a really great movie to be made from Anderson’s novel but sadly, Speak is only a middling effort that’s as good as it is thanks to Stewart’s perceptive, intuitive performance; engaging enough, and with a dry sense of humour that’s allowed to flourish from time to time, it’s a movie that has no trouble drawing in the viewer, but which then has to work extra hard to keep them interested, something that’s not quite so easily done. (28/31)
D: Olivier Assayas / 105m
Cast: Kristen Srewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin, Nora von Waldstätten, Benjamin Biolay, Audrey Bonnet, Pascal Rambert
Maureen Carmichael (Stewart) is an American living in Paris whose twin brother, Lewis, has recently died of a heart attack, the result of a congenital defect that Maureen has as well. The pair made a pact when they were younger that if one of them died, the other would wait to receive a sign that the deceased had passed on to an afterlife. Maureen is committed to doing this, and she stays for a night in a chateau that her brother purchased before he died. She experiences strange phenomena while she’s there but isn’t sure it was Lewis that was causing it. She returns to the chateau again and this time she has a supernatural experience that is terrifying, but which doesn’t seem to involve her brother.
At a loss as to whether or not she should stop waiting for a sign from Lewis, Maureen focuses on her work as a personal shopper to a celebrity called Kyra (von Waldstätten). Maureen spends her time in exclusive boutiques, handpicking clothes and shoes and accessories so that Kyra always appears glamorous and ahead of the fashion game. In many ways it’s a thankless role, but it pays well enough for Maureen to continue waiting for Lewis to “get in touch”. One day, after dropping off some items for Kyra, Maureen receives the first in a series of mysterious text messages from an unknown sender. The texts tease her into thinking that she may be conversing with a ghost, or some kind of mischievous spirit, as the sender seems to know a lot about her and the trips she’s making.
The texts also prompt Maureen into doing something that Kyra has forbidden her to do: namely, wear the clothes and outfits that Maureen has chosen for her. One night, Maureen dresses up as Kyra, an act that is emotionally fulfilling but which also has unexpected ramifications. A visit to Kyra’s apartment reveals a shocking surprise, as does a rendezvous with her anonymous texter, all of which leave Maureen wondering if she knows anymore what is real and what isn’t.
Part ghost story, part thriller, part reflection of celebrity culture, and part exploration of the nature of grief, Personal Shopper is a movie that comes laden with purpose and promise, a Gallic hodge-podge of ideas and themes that sometimes mesh seamlessly together, but which also prove frustratingly obtuse when clarity would have been a better approach to take. The narrative moves awkwardly at times between its trio of storylines – Maureen searching for proof of her brother’s existence after death, Maureen co-opting Kyra’s identity for her own as an outlet for her grief, Maureen dealing with her phone stalker – but at least gives each storyline equal weight, and provides Kristen Stewart with her best role yet. It’s a movie that attempts to say much, and for the most part it does so with skill and determination, but any messages it wants to send – like it’s unknown texter – don’t always have the depth to match their weight.
In exploring the nature and the need of Maureen’s sense of loss, Assayas keeps the focus on Maureen’s belief in an afterlife, used as much as a reason for her to persist as to exist, and as a doleful foreshadowing of the scenes where she’s plagued by text by an unknown admirer. These two storylines blend well together, and Assayas is on firm ground when he plays up the supernatural possibility that Maureen is in touch with a spirit (albeit one that seems remarkably human still). He exploits Maureen’s naïve gullibility, and Stewart’s guileless performance anchors the character’s desperate need to believe that her brother isn’t just dead. But while the question of the mystery texter’s identity is rarely in doubt – the clues are there – Assayas does what so many other directors have done in recent years, and shows the texts on Maureen’s phone, often holding the shot while we wait for each bait and response. If these scenes are meant to provide some much needed tension, then Assayas has badly misjudged his own sense of what works and what doesn’t, as they only serve to derail the narrative and undermine the visual acuity of the rest of the movie.
Ironically, the storyline that doesn’t work so well is the one that concerns Maureen’s job as a personal shopper. Offering a jejune commentary on modern celebrity culture, Assayas predictably makes Kyra a “monster”, and Maureen just a cog in the machine that keeps it all going. Despite her reservations about the job, Maureen is keen to remind the people she buys or borrows clothes from that she is the same size and shape as her employer, but affects a “best not” approach when encouraged to try on any of Kyra’s outfits. When finally, at the urging of her mystery texter she tries on one of these outfits it leads to an expression of physical pleasure that is impactful by virtue of its being so unexpected. But having Maureen dress up as someone else and finding fulfillment isn’t something that resonates as much as perhaps Assayas intended. Instead it’s a moment where narrative conviction gives way to unnecessary dramatic licence.
The muddled question of which is Maureen’s dominant personality aside, Personal Shopper is also a mystery that operates on two levels, with the supernatural aspects handled well but losing importance as the movie progresses, and the identity of the texter taking centre stage by the movie’s midpoint but fizzling out once Maureen makes her shocking discovery. By dovetailing these two elements, Assayas does make the bulk of the movie intriguing (until he reveals the truth behind everything), and while as mentioned before, they’re the movie’s strongest components, this is largely due to the atmosphere that Assayas creates around them, rather than any intensity that might arise naturally out of the material. It’s the same for the thriller elements that come into play late on: on a technical level they’re handled extremely well, but they lack a connection to what’s gone before and remain adrift from the rest of the material as a result.
Stewart gives easily her best performance so far, inhabiting the twin worlds of Maureen’s passive/more passive existence with skill and intelligence. Hers is a powerful study of a woman whose connection to the real world is as remote as the probability that her brother will make contact with her. It’s a trenchant, incisive portrayal, and Assayas exploits Stewart’s commitment to the character every chance he gets, shooting in close up wherever possible and getting the actress to express every trace of Maureen’s internal confusion. It’s Stewart’s movie, and she takes full advantage of the opportunity given to her. But unfortunately she remains, like the audience, subject to the narrative whims of the material, and Assayas’ random allocation of depth and importance to the material as a whole. This is definitely a good movie, but lurking somewhere inside it, there’s a potentially great movie that, like Lewis, is just waiting to be heard from.
Rating: 7/10 – a movie that is likely to leave many viewers scratching their heads in their efforts to derive satisfaction from its messy screenplay, Personal Shopper is a case of a movie taking two steps forward and then one step back in its approach to the material; Assayas and Stewart work extremely well together, but the French auteur has fashioned better movies in the past, and even though he won the Best Director award at Cannes (tying with Cristian Mungiu), this is not the best example of what he can achieve.
D: Woody Allen / 96m
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Corey Stoll, Sari Lennick, Stephen Kunken, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Anna Camp, Sheryl Lee
In the Thirties, naïve young Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) leaves the safety of his parents’ (Berlin, Stott) home in the Bronx to move to Hollywood and start a new life. Taken under the wing of his uncle, super-agent Phil Stern (Carell), Bobby is shown around town by Stern’s secretary, Vonnie (Stewart). He quickly falls in love with her, despite her having a boyfriend, and they spend a lot of time together. But when the man in Vonnie’s life reneges on a promise to leave his wife for her, she allows herself to be wooed by Bobby, and in time he asks her to marry him and go with him to New York (he’s bored by the shallowness of Hollywood and its denizens).
But Vonnie’s “boyfriend” finally leaves his wife and she chooses to marry him instead of Bobby. Heartbroken, and hardened by the experience, Bobby returns to New York where he goes to work with his older brother, Ben (Stoll), running a nightclub called Le Tropical. Ben has criminal ties, but keeps Bobby clear of any involvement. Eventually, Bobby meets and marries a recent divorceé, Veronica (Lively). They have a child, and the club becomes a focal point for the famous, the infamous, and everyone in between. Now settled firmly into the roles of husband, father and successful businessman, Bobby’s world is turned upside down when Vonnie pays a visit to Le Tropical with her husband, and it becomes clear that they still have feelings for each other.
Woody Allen’s latest, annual, offering is an outwardly frivolous affair that touches on many of the tropes that have kept his movie career going for nearly fifty years. There’s the relationship between an older man and a (much) younger woman; love denied; philosophical enquiries into the natures of life, love and art; class merits and social acceptance; ambition; and all wrapped up in a slightly more jaundiced approach than is usual. Beneath the glamour and the glitzy lifestyles on display in both Hollywood and New York, Allen makes it clear that happiness is much harder to find than it appears. It also appears to be much more of a commodity, as Bobby’s offer of a romantic life in New York is spurned for a superficial one in Hollywood.
Allen once again assembles a great cast with Eisenberg as yet another on-screen substitute for The Man Himself, and Stewart putting in her best performance in quite some time as the (not really) conflicted Vonnie. But it’s the supporting characters who steal the show, in particular Bobby’s aunt Evelyn (Lennick) and her pacifist husband, Leonard (Kunken). Their problem with an abusive neighbour provides a much needed break from the predictable nature of the central romance, while Stoll’s droll gangster is worthy of a movie of his own. It’s this imbalance that hurts the movie at times, as the romance between Vonnie and Bobby, though given due emphasis by Allen’s screenplay, isn’t as compelling as you’d expect. It’s the distractions from the main storyline that work better as a result, and while Allen peppers things with his trademark wit (“First a murderer, and now a Christian!”), it’s not enough to offset the familiarity of a romance seen too often before.
Rating: 7/10 – Vittorio Storaro’s gorgeous cinematography is Café Society‘s biggest draw, along with its cast, but this is ultimately a Woody Allen movie that sees him revisiting familiar ground to sporadically good effect; enjoyable enough then, but there’s a sense that Allen’s once-a-year workload is still providing similar returns with each new movie.
Another in the weekly series designed to encourage debate on thedullwoodexperiment, where readers/followers/first-timers/anyone can air their opinions/views/thoughts on the topic/subject/idea in question. (Apologies for the lack of a Question of the Week last week.)
Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart were everywhere during the four years it took to bring the Twilight saga to the big screen, but since Breaking Dawn Part 2 bowed in 2012, both actors have (apparently) shied away from the kind of mega-movie experience that made them both household names. Pattinson has made five movies, mostly interesting and moderately successful at the box office, while Stewart has made eleven (four of which can be seen this year). She too has made some interesting choices, but like Pattinson, hasn’t exactly lit up the box office. They may be working on movies that offer them different challenges, and they may not be interested in how successful those movies are, but with Pattinson’s recent, embarrassing performance as T.E. Lawrence in Queen of the Desert (2015), and Stewart’s latest, Personal Shopper (2016) being booed at Cannes, this week’s question is:
Have the careers of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart peaked with their involvement in the Twilight franchise, or will they achieve the kind of career longevity that will see retrospectives of their work in, say, thirty years’ time?
Action, Animation, Apollo Ape, Assassin, Chip the Brick, CIA, Comedy, Connie Britton, Jesse Andrews, John Leguizamo, Kristen Stewart, Nima Nourizadeh, Review, Stoner, Thriller, Topher Grace, Tough guys, Ultra program
D: Nima Nourizadeh / 96m
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale, Stuart Greer, Monique Ganderton
Mike Howell (Eisenberg) is charitably known as a stoner. He works in a mini-mart that rarely sees any customers, and he lives with his girlfriend of five years, Phoebe (Stewart). Having made plans for a romantic trip to Hawaii, Mike doesn’t make it further than the airport as he always gets panic attacks when he tries to leave the sleepy town of Liman, where he and Phoebe live. Mike was going to propose when they were in Hawaii, and has kept the ring, waiting for the right moment.
At the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, veteran agent Victoria Lasseter (Britton) receives a mysterious phone call that warns her that “Tough Guy is moving in on Little Man”. This refers to two separate CIA programs: the Little Man referred to was part of the Ultra program that was shelved several years before, while Tough Guy is the brainchild of fellow agent Adrian Yates (Grace). Lasseter confronts Yates who tells her he’s cleaning house and the one remaining participant in the Ultra program is regarded as a liability. Blocked by Yates’s seniority, she decides to take matters in her own hands.
That night, Lasseter visits the store where Mike works. She tells him some coded phrases that are meant to reactivate him, but they appear to be ineffective. But later, when he sees two men tampering with his car, he finds himself being attacked. Without thinking, he defends himself and kills both men. Freaked out he calls Phoebe and tells her what’s happened. When she arrives, she’s just ahead of the sheriff (Greer), who arrests them both. Mike is unable to explain how he was able to kill the men, but his newly realised (or reawakened) skills prove useful again when Yates sends two Tough Guys – Laugher (Goggins) and Crane (Ganderton) – to finish the job the other two couldn’t. In the process, the station is destroyed and all the police force killed; Mike kills Crane and he and Phoebe get away.
They head for the home of Mike’s dealer, Rose (Leguizamo). There they learn that the town has been quarantined and that Mike and Lasseter are being labelled animal rights terrorists who have released a deadly virus in the area. Two more Tough Guys arrive and start to flood the place with a deadly gas. Phoebe and Mike get out but not before he ingests a dangerous amount of it. She saves his life, but in the process Mike realises that she knows too much about what’s going on. Phoebe is forced to confess that she’s been hiding something from him, and this changes things between them. While Phoebe tries to explain things, Laugher pushes their car off a bridge. Mike is trapped, but Phoebe is captured by Laugher who takes her to Yates – but not before he’s poured gasoline on the overturned car and set it alight…
An uneven mix of stoner comedy and action movie, American Ultra is the kind of late summer crowd pleaser that will likely please fans of both genres as it comfortably combines both to generally good effect. It’s a movie where lots of things happen coincidentally and predictably, but this is one occasion where it doesn’t really matter, as whatever flaws it has are compensated for by the huge sense of fun to be had, from Mike’s drug-fuelled paranoia – at one point he thinks he might be a robot – to the moment where he finally proposes to Phoebe.
It’s a deliberately offbeat, totally ridiculous slice of escapist fantasy that knows exactly what it’s doing, and if screenwriter Landis and director Nourizadeh between them can’t quite wrestle the whole premise into a manageable whole, it’s still comforting to know that they get it right more times than not. On the plus side, there’s the relationship between Mike and Phoebe, a touching, believable couple with minimal ambitions and secure in their love for each other (even if Mike can’t make an omelette without nearly burning down their home). As played by Eisenberg and Stewart, reuniting at last after first appearing together in Adventureland (2009), Mike and Phoebe provide the sweet-natured heart of the movie, and you root for them when Yates and his operation come to Liman. Even when Phoebe’s revelation threatens to come between them, there’s enough investment in their relationship made already that even though their reconciliation is inevitable, you still want it to happen sooner rather than later.
Another plus factor are the inventive fight scenes, particularly a standout sequence at the mini-mart that is shot almost like a first-person video game, and sees Mike using anything that comes to hand to ward off over a dozen Tough Guys. Eisenberg makes a convincing action hero, his slight frame and long hair at odds with the muscular attributes of most action stars, and he’s a revelation in these scenes, kicking ass in a way that the portrayer of Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t usually be thought of. Stewart also has her moves, and she too is surprisingly effective as a bad-ass. There’s still a tendency to shoot the action sequences and fight scenes with too much of a nod to rapid editing, though there is a fair amount that’s seen in long shot, and is all the better for it.
On the downside, Leguizamo has an awkward role that sees him using the N-word too often, while Grace mugs and overacts in a way that suggests he’s read a different script to everyone else. The real script’s implausibilities threaten to derail the narrative at times, and Landis can’t always resist the temptation to throw in a few unnecessary curve balls (the character of Laugher and his eventual fate is a case in point), but as mentioned above there’s more than enough to make up for it all, including some very humorous moments that show Eisenberg’s complete ownership of his character (Mike’s reaction to a call from Yates is the best example, and very funny indeed).
And lastly, there’s Apollo Ape and Chip the Brick. Who are they? They’re characters Mike draws who have adventures – very violent adventures – in outer space. They make an animated appearance at the movie’s end that’s hopefully not the last time we see them.
Rating: 7/10 – too messy at times to be entirely effective, American Ultra is still a worthwhile view, ably enhanced by the pairing of Eisenberg and Stewart, and feeling fresh when concentrating on the action; if the machinations of the plot are too far-fetched to work as well as they should, it’s still good to know that there are far worse, similar movies out there that aren’t half this enjoyable.
D: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland / 101m
Cast: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, Shane McRae, Stephen Kunken
Alice Howland (Moore) is a respected linguistics professor at Columbia University. She has a loving husband, John (Baldwin), and three grown up children, Anna (Bosworth), Tom (Parrish), and Lydia (Stewart). Shortly after her fiftieth birthday she gives a lecture and forgets the word ‘lexicon’. She brushes it off but when she’s out running one day she reaches the campus and for one disorientating moment she has no idea where she is. She begins to see a neurologist (Kunken) and undergoes various tests. When it comes, the diagnosis is a shock: she has early onset Alzheimers. Further tests also reveal that it’s familial, and her children are at risk of carrying the recessive gene that causes it.
As expected, the news is a blow to Alice’s family, but she is determined to fight the disease for as long as she can. Her children have different reactions: Anna is tested and is positive; she and her husband, Charlie (McRae), are trying for a baby via an infertility clinic and need to know. Tom tests negative, while Lydia, who is a budding actress living on the West Coast and a bit of a free spirit, decides not to find out. But they and their father all do their best to support Alice as she comes to terms with what her life will become.
But the illness is aggressive, and Alice’s initial coping mechanisms of using her mobile phone to record information, and setting herself little memory tests, lose their effectiveness, and she begins to forget even more. Her awareness of the speed at which her illness is affecting her, leads Alice to record a video message advising her future self to commit suicide by taking a bottle of pills. One day, while she and John are at their beach house, she forgets where the bathroom is and wets herself. As she begins to forget more and more, she receives an invitation to speak at an Alzheimers convention. There she gives a moving description of the ways in which the disease is affecting her but also the ways in which she deals with it.
Alice’s deteriorating mental abilities become more and more obvious. When Lydia performs at a local theatre, Alice forgets her name when they meet up afterwards. And she becomes anxious when John receives an offer to work at the Mayo Clinic, which will mean moving. And then Alice discovers the video message she made earlier…
Adapted from the novel by Lisa Genova, Still Alice is a gloomy, yet also affecting look at the debilitating effects of Alzheimers on an intelligent, academically respected individual, and her immediate family. It’s a straightforward, no frills movie that aims to pull no punches regarding the debilitating aspects of the disease, but can’t quite stop itself from trying to salvage a degree of personal triumph out of Alice’s dilemma. In fact, Still Alice tries so hard to make Alice’s fight against Alzheimers laudatory that it almost misses the tragedy that goes with it hand in hand.
In telling Alice’s story, writer/directors Gratzer and Westmoreland have resorted to charting the gradual effects of the disease by signposting them with often clumsy simplicity. First Alice forgets a word in a lecture, next she forgets where she is, then she forgets someone’s name and their address in a test. As each lapse in memory and example of cognitive impairment is trotted out, their presence in the narrative seems to be crying out, “See? She’s getting worse!”, as if the viewer couldn’t work that out for themselves. And when she’s told that her form of Alzheimers, matched by her intelligence and mental acuity, means that the disease will have a more rapid effect on her, it’s almost like kicking someone when they’re down; not only is Alice already unlucky to be suffering at so young an age, but because she’s so smart it’s another point against her.
This kind of unnecessary melodrama hurts the middle third of the movie so much that it’s only thanks to Moore’s superb performance that it remains so affecting and watchable. Even when the script piles on the pain and anguish she remains utterly believable, painting a sincere, credible portrait of a woman losing her sense of herself, and portraying the terrible ramifications of having her personality destroyed from within. The scene where Alice can’t find the bathroom is a powerful example, as the camera stays with her at waist height as she rushes through the house. When she stops the camera focuses on her face and the evident torment she’s experiencing. The viewer knows exactly what’s happening, from the shame and distress Alice is feeling to the moment where the inevitable happens, and when the camera pans back to reveal the stain down the front of her jogging bottoms it’s nowhere near as effective as the acting masterclass that Moore has honoured us with. Simply put, Moore is astonishing, and when the disease has robbed Alice of nearly all cognisance of the world around her, and her eyes are dulled by incomprehension, it’s heartbreaking.
Sadly, Moore is the best thing in a movie that fails to paint convincing portraits of Alice’s family and resorts to their providing implausible levels of support throughout. Not once does any one of them lose their temper, or voice their own distress at what’s happening to her, or display any hesitation in doing what they can. Even when John is offered the job at the Mayo Clinic and Alice states her reluctance of doing so, the scene is set for the kind of antagonism that must surely happen in these situations. But instead, John swallows his disappointment in seconds and the moment passes. It’s an uncomfortable moment because it feels so false, and Baldwin doesn’t pull it off (for once though, we see another character looking as lost as Alice is). But Baldwin isn’t alone. Each of the supporting cast has their “uncomfortable moment”, Stewart early on when Alice and Lydia have one of those awkward mother-daughter conversations about careers that seems to have been cribbed from a thousand and one other similar mother-daughter conversations in the movies, and which leaves Stewart struggling to make her supposedly independent-minded character sound anything other than petulant. In contrast, Bosworth is the waspish eldest daughter, saddled with lines that are largely derogatory of others and with no obvious reason for her being that way. And Parrish is sidelined pretty much throughout as Alice’s son, allowed only a brief moment to shine (but not say much) at the Alzheimers convention.
With Moore’s formidable performance taken out of the equation, Still Alice skirts perilously close to formulaic disease-of-the-week TV movie status. It’s a movie that wants to say something profound about the way in which a disease as awful as Alzheimers can be managed – albeit in its early stages – and while Alice’s address to the conference is genuinely moving, it relies too heavily on her normal mental capability to be completely persuasive. With other dramatic flaws that weigh the movie down, Glatzer and Westmoreland’s efforts remain lumbering and inconsequential. The movie is also curiously bland to watch, with too many neutral colours in the background, and Alice aside, too many characters who evince emotion with restraint. There’s also a mawkish score by Ilan Eshkeri that only occasionally matches the action for poignancy.
Rating: 6/10 – gaining two points because of the sheer brilliance and sensitivity of Moore’s performance, Still Alice is gripping stuff when Moore is onscreen but turgid and lacking validity when she isn’t; if it wasn’t for her this would be one movie that could be so easily forgotten, and without any attendant grief.