Overlooked Films: Still Alice

Directed (and screenplay by) Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Sony Pictures, 101 minutes, PG-13
* * *

Julianne Moore won a Best Actress Academy Award for the title role of Still Alice, but there wasn't much Oscar magic in it; the film made a paltry $18.6 million in the U.S. market. Audiences did not flock to a  film about a vibrant 50-year-old Colombia professor prematurely felled by Alzheimer's disease. I ducked for a highly personal reason: my mother died of Alzheimer's and I feared that Hollywood would somehow present this faith-shaking malady with more hope and dignity than it merited. I also needed more emotional distance between my mother's death and the subject.

I am happy to report that, for the most part, this film—which is based upon Lisa Genora's best-selling 2007 novel–does a fairly honest job with Alzheimer's devastation. At several junctures, Alice is filmed as if all around her is hazy and indistinct, which accords with how I think my mother experienced things up to the moment where she didn't experience much of anything. Glatzer and Westmoreland also do a credible job of showing how families are cast into helplessness as the inevitable takes its course–in Alice's case her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), and their three children: Lydia (Kristen Stewart), Anna (Kate Bosworth), and Tom (Hunter Parrish). The directors try to provide back stories for each character, but the film is, by necessity, all about Alice. Moore is very good in the role. She's gorgeous, but not part of Hollywood's shiny wrapper/empty head crowd. Thus, she's totally believable as both a whip smart linguistics prof and as a desperate woman victim watching herself disappear piece by tiny piece. In one of the more remarkable transformations, Moore diminishes herself physically from a coiffed pulled-together Ivy Leaguer to a bedraggled lost soul–and she does so through sheer acting, not a bunch of make-up tricks. Her hollow eyes tell us all we need to know, as we watch the lights turn off.

Objectively speaking, though, Still Alice is merely a middle-of-the-road film. A good friend commented that it's a bit too obviously a Julianne Moore star turn and I find that fair commentary. Aside from Kristen Stewart–who has the chops to become this generation's Julianne Moore–no one else has much to do in the film. Frankly, the film also raises skeptical hackles. Alice is saddled with extremely rare Familial Alzheimer's. This explains her early onset Alzheimer's, but it's also convenient in that a bankable star such as Moore can play the part rather than someone who would appeal only to older viewers. This was, of course, how Genova wrote the novel upon which the movie is based, but it also means we do not see a 'typical' Alzheimer's profile.

I will give the directors a pass on this issue, but I cannot declare Still Alice the best film you can see about dementia*.  But that too can be forgiven as the competition is two genuine masterpieces: "Away From Her," Sarah Polley's stunning 2006 directorial debut–with Julie Christie every bit Moore's equal in the lead role–and Amour (2012) with the transcendent Emmanuelle Riva as a woman whose stroke leads her to descend into depression and (probably) dementia. Director Michael Haneke's Amour does something that Still Alice fails to do: ask what love (amour) means and what you would do in its name. Let's just say that Alec Baldwin is no Jean-Louis Trintignant when it comes to knowing what his wife would have wished.

Still Alice is a hard film, though if you can only stomach one movie about losing mental faculties, this one is the easiest of the lot. One can debate whether Moore's performance was Oscar worthy or simply just very good, but it's fine enough to justify watching the movie. After you do, pour yourself a stiff drink and give thanks for each day you live in which the only haze you endure is the one your sip from the glass.
Rob Weir

*No matter what Hollywood tells you, Alzheimer's, even the Familial variety, can only be definitively diagnosed posthumously. It is generally labeled via symptoms, but as long as the patient lives, the lines between Alzheimer's, severe depression, and other forms of dementia are, if I may, hazy.



Hannah Miller's Tough New Record One of Year's Best

Hannah Miller
Sputnik Sound
* * * *

Think of the woman standing alone in a smoky bar at midnight–the one with the low-cut red dress who exudes desire and danger. If she made a record, it would sound like the latest from Hannah Miller. Miller states that she wanted to make a record without "coffeehouse-friendly songs." This one will certainly send the crystals-and-rainbows crowd running for cover! This is a very dark album. How dark? "Promise Land" is a reflection on the Chernobyl disaster, and it's not even close to being the hardest song of the bunch. "Been Around" might well be the album's theme song. Gothic organ notes spill out as she sings: "I ain't nobody's fool/I know what you're up to/It's not my first time out/I'm not new in town/I've been around." Later she intones: "Your words don't break my bones/I'm full of sticks and stones." Think she's kidding? "While you go down in flames/I play it cool/Cause I'm the one playing you/Like a fool."

Had you fill of little girl voices and frothy pop? Check out Miller's guttural, grown-up voice and tough songs. The dominant instrument on most of her songs is the bass—the chunkier and more ominous the better. The mood is somber, the pacing deliberate, the lighting set to low, and the mood dialed to no-nonsense. Her "Watchman" is a grim reaper, "Soothed" means she's come to terms with having come undone, and "You Don't Call" doesn't wallow: "You don't call any more/and that's fine." The closest she gets to sunny is "Outside In," the album's folkiest song, in which she tries to convince a lover that it's okay to get close. But she follows it with "Leaving," the album's grittiest song, one about a woman damaged by a broken and abusive family, betrayed trust, and so many disappointments that she's emotionally empty. "Go on and try to make me feel anything/What's a little leaving to a girl like me?" Yowser!  

Sound bleak? Yes, but here's the other thing: this is a seriously good album. It's filled with Chris Isaak-like reverb, amazing bass from Kevin Whitset, and loads of texturing synth, organ, keyboards, and guitar–all of which serve the songs brilliantly. Miller's voice is husky when it needs to be, vulnerable if called for, and as sharp as a knife when she needs to cut someone down to size. Miller's neither an innocent nor a shrinking violet; hers are songs for femmes fatale and revenge seekers, but also ones that demand acceptance of the music and of Ms. Miller on her terms. Call it ice and fire, sexy and sultry. Call it one of the year's smartest records. Rob Weir  


Overlooked Films: Lucy

LUCY   (2014)
Directed by Luc Besson
EuropaCorp, 89 minutes, R (graphic violence), English (and some subtitles)
* * *

The French science fiction film Lucy did reasonably well at the U.S. box office, bringing in $43 million, but it was a smash sensation globally raking in more than ten times the North American box office. It also holds the distinction of being the first science fiction movie partially filmed using IMAX cameras, which gives it a hyper-real sheen in all the right places. The guarded enthusiasm in the United States is often explained by the fact that Lucy had only two recognizable names, Scarlett Johansson in the title role and Morgan Freeman in an expanded cameo. I'd like to suggest, though, that U.S. audiences got it right: Lucy is assuredly worth a rental, but it's far too uneven to rank as a great film.

If you like shiny surfaces and intriguing speculation, Lucy is full of both. It opens (and ends) with cells colliding and dividing and quickly cuts to a misty prehistoric dawn where a female Australopithecine is watering. As we learn, she is "Lucy," the sensational 1974 fossil find of paleontologist Donald Johanson that literally rewrote the story of human evolution. Flash to the 21st century where another Lucy (Scarlett Johannson) is a 25-year-old student in Taipei lured by a shady boyfriend into the next leap in human evolution. He forces her to carry a briefcase into a bank and before you can say "Australopithecus" she's spirited away, witnesses murders, is sedated, and awakes to find herself as one of four individuals with bloody stitched slits in their guts. Each has one opportunity to live–become unwilling drug mules to Paris, Berlin, London, and Rome, where they will be relieved of the contents of their tummy tucks.

It's sci-fi, baby, so you know they aren't packing anything as mundane as coke or heroin. A group of unscrupulous Taiwanese scientists has synthesized the hormone pregnant women secrete to help fetal skeletons and brains develop. Ingested in small quantities, the drug opens Huxley's doors of perception and gives access to more than the 10% of the brain humans normally use. Before Lucy even boards the plane, though, something goes awry (because it is sci-fi, baby). In a very disturbing scene, Lucy is brutally beaten when she rebuffs the sexual advances of some Taiwanese thugs. A kick to the stomach ruptures the bag she is carrying—doses meant for hundreds of users. As neuroscientist professor Samuel Norman (Freeman) explains in a conference crosscut, if humans could access 20% of their brains, they could control their own bodies, objects, and others. But what would happen at 30%? 50%? 100%?

Director Luc Besson acknowledges that Lucy is a pastiche of three other films: Léon: The Professional (1994), the story of an assassin, which he wrote; the popular mind-altering film Inception (2010); and Stanley Kubrick's path-breaking 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Be warned: the violence in this film is Quentin Tarantino-like in its bloodiness and its amorality. The attack on Lucy transgresses the border between advancing the plot and misogyny—so much so that it is very tempting to stop the film. Obviously, Lucy survives, but I leave it to your judgment to determine if what follows is worth it. The film is certainly open to intense criticism on this score, as well as whether Besson's mix of violence, drugs, and the future of humanity is intriguing conceptually, but too uneven on the screen. Drug overlord Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik) pursues Lucy to Paris–where she hopes to enlist the aid of Professor Norman–and we get numerous showdowns with thugs, a car chase across Paris, and a beat-the-clock dénouement. Once again, it's probably a personal judgment call as to whether all of this is really innovative f/x, or just your run-of-the-mill chase scene dressed up in fancy clothes. Ditto the question of whether Besson has solved the mystery of Kubrick's black obelisk and written the next chapter of the space child, or whether he has merely contrived his way to 2001 Lite.

For me, there were enough fresh ideas to carry me over the creepiness threshold. I see Lucy to be a deeply flawed film, but was intrigued. I would not, however, judge anyone who turned it off a third of the way through. My only defense for (sort of) liking this film is–you guessed it—it's sci-fi, baby!   Rob Weir