Recently: “Still Alice”

IMG_5084-0Some films you wouldn’t think are capable of big things. They’re so simple, that under anyone else or involving anyone else, they would probably go unnoticed.

The Sony Pictures Classics film “Still Alice”, takes you on a surprisingly emotional journey that’s never forced and lingers after all is said and done.

This drama stars Julianne Moore (upcoming “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II”, “Seventh Son”), Alec Baldwin (“Law & Order: SVU”, “Blue Jasmine”), Kristen Stewart (upcoming “Clouds of Sils Maria”, “Camp X-Ray”), Kate Boseworth (“Homefront”, “Big Sur”), and Hunter Parrish (“The Good Wife”, “Gone”).

The film was written and directed by Richard Glatzer (“The Last of Robin Hood”, “Quinceanera”) and Wash Westmoreland (“The Last of Robin Hood”, “Quinceanera”). It is based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova.

The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Sept. 8, 2014 and had several festival screenings, before finally opening in a limited run on Dec. 5. The film saw a wide release on Jan. 16, 2015. As of this writing this film has gone on to be nominated for an Academy Award, Golden Globe, winning for Best Actress, and a Screen Actors Guild Award also winning for Female Actor in a Leading Role, among several other nominations and wins.

For the longest time, and even a little now, I’d only heard how wonderful Moore is. That’s great and all, as she is a very good actress, but in wanting to figure out if this is a film worth seeing as soon as possible or later, it doesn’t help. Then the bulk of awards season comes and she’s continuously handed the award for best actress. Speaking of, I’m going to call it now, mainly as everyone else has too, but she’ll probably win the Oscar for this role (finally!!). Anyway, this has basically given me all the reason I need to see this film. Too bad it wasn’t on my must see first list. That’s another thing all together.

Now this may seem to go in contradiction of what you’d expect me to say, but this film isn’t really anything special. It’s a $4 million dollar budgeted film with nothing overly demanding, aside from subject matter and performances, which are incredibly moving. Other than that, it’s your basic independent film, which could’ve easily come and gone like so many others. But that’s where the film’s success lies, to me at least. It’s not asking you to believe too many things, or cram way too much plot or characters into this world. This film also has the distinction (as far as I know), of being only the second film to tackle Alzheimers in any major way. The last time this was used in a film was with the 2006 film, “Away From Her”. Now I don’t remember much about that film, which is a shame, I know a lot of people liked it and were moved by it. I won’t be comparing the two, but on subject matter for this film, it’s probably what helps sell it. You’re not overly exposed to how people react to a character with Alzheimers, and so you can easily be moved by what’s given and portrayed.

While it’s a lot of fun to single Moore out for how great she is in this film, and she is great, she’s not the only one in the film. The acting from the entire cast is phenomenal. Each performance adds even more nuance, depth, and honesty, overall making the film’s emotional impact even stronger. If I’m being honest, it’s what’s actually making writing this piece so hard. I’ve been trying to figure out how best to convey the performances and I can’t think of anything that’s good enough. They’re that complicated (in a good way), which also gives this film so much to digest and makes watching this film, seeing the struggles, worth it. It also means, you’ll really have to take my word for it, which may or may not mean something.

One of the biggest areas where this film succeeds, is showing the family dynamics. We get what life is like for each character, as well as how they interact together early on in the film. Normal, whatever that looks like. The relationships are all well defined. Then, after the diagnosis, they shift. The relationships try to stay as they were, as does life, but that’s impossible. So, as with any family, I’m sure, going through some big change, different roles are assumed. Each person is still trying to live life as if nothing new has happened. It’s hard, if not completely impossible.

One scene, in particular, among so many memorable ones, involves a family meal. By this point, it’s months, if not longer, of Moore living with this and getting progressively worse. She’s still pretty able to get by, but you can tell how things are going. The situation involves Moore writing down a date and place for this performance that Stewart has, even though, as is mentioned numerous times by Bosworth, she doesn’t need to write it down. Stewart and Parrish don’t agree, as they’d still like their mother to have some control over how she lives her life. This ends up in an argument, complete with name calling and shouting. Family at it’s best. They each want something different for her, ultimately thinking it’s the best. No one is wrong, so it’s even harder.

Then there’s a scene, two scenes, involving a speech. Moore is giving a speech. First, Stewart hears it and the two of them have a bit of back and forth. All of it’s coming from a place of love, and wanting to be there and helpful, but it just makes Moore frustrated. Later, on the day of, Moore is accompanied by Parrish. He does get a chance to do things for his mother! When Moore is giving this speech, the shots alternate between those of her, Parrish, and the audience. You can see the joy he’s getting from seeing her do this, as well as the pain, as she has a few missteps. Then, and this goes for the entirety of the scene, there’s the speech itself. It’s really well written and delivered. So much so, that you will become emotional on some level, and may as well be a member of the audience for which she is giving this speech.

Lastly, on the varying family dynamics, there’s Baldwin. He’s a doctor as well At some point, when Moore has really progressed, he’s given this offer of a job in some other state. He has to weigh this now, as he’s primarily been the one taking care of her. He knows he should be there, but this chance is so special, he knows putting it off isn’t really a good idea. While this may make one dislike him, you can’t say he’s a villain or anything like that. That’s what makes this film so honest is that you see these people struggle with the choices they must make. It’s the reality of the situation. Life goes on.

As this is a short film the handling of time needs to be done successfully. Unlike with a book, it’s hard to dictate time in any way that’s all that original. The writers, luckily, pulled this off in a way seldom seen, but one I love so much. Within the first 40 minutes, something like six months had gone by. Typical markers, such as “two weeks later”, “six months later”, etc. were not used. It’s woven into the dialogue in a very organic way. This method never felt forced, which is the biggest risk with this approach. One instance, that stood out the most, is when Bosworth is visiting and Baldwin finds something once lost. Moore’s Alice says, “I was looking for it last night.” Baldwin’s John says to Bosworth, “That was a month ago.” This exchange is also so simple, that that’s what makes it all the more effective.

Her disease progression, of course, is hard to witness. This goes back to the way this film is approached in general. It’s not being overdramatic. Everything is handled with a kind of compassion and sensitivity. Since this is a film that covers a lot of time, as well as the disease not being something that occurs all at one moment, the moments are spread out. It’s what makes them more impactful and harder to witness. Even when there are happier moments, you’re never really clear of the sadder ones, as you’re probably still reflecting on them, or you know that there’s going to be another one in a matter of minutes. The handling of the disease also gives credit to how intelligent and methodical Moore’s character is. She knows the progress the disease will take and goes through some pretty drastic steps to help herself.

I also want to mention, just because it’s noticeable, the use of “Words with Friends”, as a prop and for pushing the story forward. The story uses this game well, with regards to Moore’s characters disease progression. She starts off playing really well, using her vast knowledge of certain words and gets some pretty big points for the words played. Later, as we’re sadly shown, she can only seem to recall very simple, low scoring words. It also makes me wonder if something like this was in the novel, or added later, because the invention of games and cell phones had changed so much since the book was published.

One thing I did like a lot was the few instances that showed how Moore was deteriorating or starting to. Shots weren’t always in focus. Showed a kind of foggy or cloudiness in relation to Moore’s characters memory and the disease. One such shot was when Moore is just sitting and the only thing in focus is the back of her head. You can see that there are three shapes in the room, in front of you, even hear them, but can’t see the clearly. They’re Baldwin, Bosworth, and Parrish, discussing whether or not to place her in a facility for longterm care. The scene where this happened also made sure to show us what state Alice was in.

It’s rare that this happens, or has any impact whatsoever, but the use of a song at the end can have a surprising effect on you. I was moved so much by the song chosen to play during the bulk of the end credits. The song in this case is a cover of Lyle Lovett’s “If I had a Boat”. It’s wonderfully sung by Karen Elson and, whether this was the plan or not, it hits you hard emotionally. It’s probably got more to do with the overall arrangements, because lyrically, well written and all, it doesn’t really connect to the film’s story at all. It’s not very sad either. It’s just a good song already, and used as one final way to move you, even after the songs done playing and the credits have stopped rolling.

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