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Movie Review: Still Alice

Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a 50 year-old woman fighting early Alzheimer's in Still Alice.

Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a 50 year-old woman coping with Alzheimer’s in Still Alice.

“I wish I had cancer. At least then people wear pink ribbons for you, and they go on long walks.”

It’s always a question whether it’s possible to have a film about Alzheimer’s Disease that’s watchable. The latest film making that attempt is Still Alice. I believe it does so.

Alice Howland is a 50 year-old woman who appears to have it made: a college professor who just published a book on linguistics, an active person recreationally, a wife to a loving and supportive husband and a mother to three adult children. One of which is married and about to be a mother to twins. However something goes noticeably wrong during a lecture about her book. She has a mental lapse she mistakes for an effect of alcohol. Soon there are more mental lapses, especially while jogging around campus and while giving lectures. Even reintroducing herself to Tom’s girlfriend causes people to wonder. Alice seeks a doctor’s attention immediately. She’s given the news: Alzheimer’s. She’s victim to a gene that brings on Alzheimer’s at an early age.

The family is devastated to hear the news. The children even have to get tested to see if they carry the gene. Anna bares the gene but her yet-to-be-born twins are immune. Nevertheless the family tries to go about the best they can while trying to be a help to Alice. However the changes are as hard for them as it is for Alice herself. Firstly Alice will have to give up her professor job. Going to an Alzheimer’s ward in a nursing and witnessing the patients leaves her upset about her future to the point she plans her own suicide using a marked bottle full of pills and a video file on her computer named ‘Butterfly’ of herself instructing her to take all the pills in the bottle. Family friction happens over time as her husband John notices changes in her thinking and Lydia overreacts after she learns Alice went through her theatre notes.

However things get better over time. John learns how to work with her fading abilities and become patient with her even in the case of her cellphone she misplaced a month earlier. Anna gives birth to the twins and she’s able to hold one of them. Her relationship with Lydia grows as Lydia shares her plays with her and gets Alice to see her perform in Angels In America where Alice feels the play. Even Alice is able to give a lecture to the local Alzheimer’s association where she delivers a speech she wrote herself and uses a highlighter to mark the notes she read as John and her son Tom watch. The speech is near perfect.

Over time she continues to acquire inner strength just as the disease is continuing to impair her brain even further to the point she needs a caretaker while John is gone. However it’s by chance that while her caretaker is away, she comes across the ‘Butterfly’ video on her laptop. She obeys the video and even takes the laptop with her as she searches for the bottle. However the suicide attempt fails as the pills still all over the bathroom floor. The film ends with her still alive but will get you questioning if it ended right.

The film is more than just about Alzheimer’s. It’s about having it at a very young age and trying to be able to deal with it and its debilitating effects. You can’t blame Alice for being distraught on hearing the news, especially when she has so much going for her. Just a bit of trivia here: even though 50 seems awfully young to have Alzheimer’s, we should remember the first subject Dr. Alois Alzheimer studied in the disease that bears his name was a 51 year-old German woman. It almost seems understandable to some that Alice sets her own suicide up to happen when the time appears right. However it’s about acquiring inner strength over time. Yes, Alice’s years are numbered and the disease is taking a toll on her mind and her body but she becomes a stronger person over time. It makes like the suicide attempt look like the wrong thing to do after what she’s fought out.

The movie is also about family relations during Alzheimer’s. For those who have a loved one with this disease, you would know how much it affects the whole family and even hurts deeply. It’s even harder to bear when the gene that causes early Alzheimer’s is present in other family members, just like how it’s also present in Alice’s oldest daughter Anna. The frustrations are there in the Howlands as Lydia doesn’t know what to make when she learns Alice went through her script notes. Even John feels the frustration as being the husband. Nevertheless the family unit becomes stronger over time and they continue to function the best ways that they can. Lydia’s connection with Alice through her theatre work helps Alice still keep in touch with the world even as the disease continues to take its toll. Anna even tries to let the fact she bares the gene not bother her and continue to live her life as a wife and mother of newborn twins. That scene where Alice is holding her grandchild is one of the more poignant moments of the film.

Without a question, the film belongs to Julianne Moore. Her ability to give an Alzheimer’s victim a personality and a will of her own while fighting the destructive nature of the disease has to be the actress performance of the year without an equal. She did a top notch job and deserves the Oscar. None of the supporting performances can pare up to the caliber of Julianne’s performance but Kristen Stewart’s performance of the actress daughter with extreme emotions who connects with her mother through the art of theatre has to be the best of the supporting performances and has more range than even the character of John, despite how good of a job Alec Baldwin does. Kate Bosworth was good as the daughter with the same gene trying to live her life normally but it could have been developed more. Hunter Parrish’s role as Tom the son was the most underdeveloped role in the film but he does a very good job with what little he has. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland do a good job of directing and writing despite making this film appear to be a film of a single acting role dominating for the most part. I’ll admit I haven’t read the novel by Lisa Genova so I can’t say if they adapted it right or not.

SPOILER ALERT: They say the ending is one of the trickiest things to do in a film. I will have to say the scene of the suicide attempt ended rather flat and led into scenes that will leave one wondering if the film makes it look like a good thing the attempt failed or a bad thing. That scene where Alice is with John having ice cream dwelling on how she used to be very smart will have you wondering as will the end scene where she’s with Lydia and she can hardly talk. It also makes you wonder if it ended right. But I think that may have been the point. I think Richard and Wash ended the film that way so we can make our own judgment whether Alice continuing to live is the right thing or the wrong thing.

Still Alice makes for a very watchable movie about Alzheimer’s even if it does appear at times to be dominated by Julianne Moore’s acting. Nevertheless her role is one that leads to a performance meant to shine and she does just that.

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DVD Review: Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a socialite with all the wrong moves, in Blue Jasmine.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a socialite with all the wrong moves, in Blue Jasmine.

I’ll admit I did not see Blue Jasmine when it first came out in theatres. The Oscar buzz for it prompted me to watch the DVD. I’m glad it did and now I know why it’s buzzing.

Jasmine comes off a plane from New York to San Francisco. She tells the elderly female passenger next to her the story of how she used to be a top socialite in New York but is near broke and hoping to start a new life. She appears to have impressed the passenger but we learn in a conversation to her husband she didn’t welcome herself to Jasmine. Jasmine then goes to her sister Ginger’s apartment. The bizarre thing is Jasmine hardly ever gives Ginger any contact but is now seeing her because of her dire straits. It’s funny since Ginger–whom is actually sister to Jasmine via her parents’ adoption–always credited Jasmine as having the good genes. The problem is that even though Jasmine is drowning in debt, she’s still set in her opulent ways.

Frequently Jasmine flashes back to her luxurious past with her husband Hal and her stepson Danny. Life was good for Jasmine and Hal appeared to be very successful as an investor It’s years ago when Ginger and her original husband Augie come to visit her in New York that things started to decline. First Jasmine offers an investment opportunity for Augie through Hal with the $200,000 he won in the lottery: money Augie was planning to use to start a business opportunity for himself. Augie and Ginger thought they’re being treated by Jasmine with a stay at the Marriott and their car and driver but Jasmine put them there because they cramped her style. It’s right during one of their sightseeing tours they noticed Hal kissing another woman.

It later became clear that Hal is a fraudster who would eventually get arrested, convicted of fraud, sentenced to prison and later committing suicide. Augie’s money was lost and it led to Augie and Ginger’s divorce. Ginger forgives Jasmine even though Augie is still resentful but is now dating a mechanic named Chili, a man Jasmine resents at first sight and gives Ginger snide remarks about him. The remarks cause Ginger to leave Chili much to his hurt.

Jasmine comes to San Francisco in hopes of starting a new life. She missed completing her anthropology degree because she fell for Hal. She wants to become an interior designer but has to take courses online and lacks computer skills. She reluctantly takes a job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office. Nevertheless it does not work out as Jasmine finds the job too stressful for her and receives unwelcomed sexual advances from the dentist.

Things do improve for Jasmine as she falls in love with a wealthy widower named Dwight who’s a diplomat with plans to become a congressman. Ginger also meets a new love named Al at the same party. Jasmine is able to win Dwight’s affection through lies of her being married to a doctor who died of a heart attack. The lies fall through when Augie bumps into them on the street and tells the whole story, including the details that her stepson Danny is working in a record store in Oakland. Right in the car ride home Dwight calls off the engagement and leaves Jasmine on the street. She visits Danny at the record store to no avail. Danny didn’t even want Jasmine to know his whereabouts. He wants to leave the past behind which means never seeing Jasmine again.

It’s right in a flashback at the end we learn of when Jasmine confronted Hal of his many affairs. Hal confesses he wants to divorce her in favor of a teenage maid for Danny. That was when she called the police and had Hal arrested for fraud which led to his imprisonment and suicide. In the end, Jasmine has to face the music for what she did to Danny, to Augie, for her interference with the love between Ginger and Chili, and herself in general.

It seems odd at first to see a Woody Allen movie classified as a drama. We’re all used to Woody Allen doing comedies. Mind you it’s after seeing this movie that there are a lot of elements that are darker than what one would expect in a Woody Allen film. It succeeds in not being too comical and even serious in some of the harsher parts of the movie. Nevertheless there are a lot of comical elements in this film despite the situation.

If there’s one thing that it does have in common with Woody Allen movies, it’s that it ends completely unexpectedly. It’s bizarre that you think things are going to go better for Jasmine in the end. Instead it all ends up worse, she fails at making peace with whatever wrongs of the past she did, whatever improvements in her own life fell through the cracks and she’s left all alone. She’s even confronted of her real name: Jeanette. She is the type of rich phony whom could easily charm and impress anyone but had a lot to hide and hid it well at the time. In the end, she has nothing left to hide and no one left to charm. She goes from being the life of the party to a person not even one on a park bench would want to be around. It’s also surprising since Jasmine would remind some of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with The Wind. Sure, Scarlett lost it all in the end too but she still held her head high at the very end with a sense of hope. Here, you don’t see a hint of ‘Tomorrow is another day’ in Jasmine.

Sometimes I think it’s not just a story to do about a socialite who gets a reality check but sometimes I think it’s a message from Woody Allen. For all intents and purposes, you’d probably know that Woody Allen is not the type who likes to go to big Hollywood parties. He hardly even makes visits to the Academy Awards. Sometimes I think his is his statement about the social scene and the phonies involved with it. It’s also a story with a lot of good relevance. It may have been more relevant had it been done ten years ago as Paris Hilton was constantly embarrassing moment after embarrassing moment upon herself, and getting more famous off of it in the meantime. Nevertheless it still does show relevance as Kim Kardashian’s exploits still make a lot of copy, if not the same hugeness of copy as say two years ago.

Yes, Woody Allen did a very good job of directing and writing this story but it was Cate Blanchett who did the greatest effort in making the character of Jasmine. The interesting thing is that Cate succeeds in making Jasmine to be the charismatic but snooty, phony, superficial, self-indulgent, materialistic socialite who deserves to be looked down upon. But she does something else. Right at the very end, she succeeds in making us actually feel from sympathy for Jasmine. Sure she went from impressing everybody to causing great personal and financial harm to others and ending up with nobody. But for some reason, the end scene actually succeeds in making us feel for Jasmine. What was it? Her willingness to try to do better? Her coming to her senses too much too late? Whatever it was, that was something hard to do and I give Cate great kudos for pulling that off. I think that’s why she has that edge in the Oscar race.

The best supporting performance has to go to Sally Hawkins as Ginger: the sister that’s supposedly the inferior one but comes off as the winner in the end. Sally also did a very good job of character acting and made Ginger into a believable and colorful personality. Finally we see which sister has the ‘good genes.’ The female leading roles were the best of the film but the male roles were also great from Alec Baldwin playing the scamming superficial Hal, to Bobby Canavale as the ‘inferior’ Chili, to Michael Stuhlbarg as the sleazy dentist, to Peter Saarsgard as the politician Jasmine has a second-chance with to Andrew Dice Clay as the distraught ex-husband of Ginger (and I hardly noticed any of the ‘Dice Man’ in him). The women ruled the movie but the male supporting roles also added to the story and contained character flares of their own. The movie didn’t really have too many stand-out technical aspects but the scenic cinematography and the music tracks added to the movies charm.

Blue Jasmine has all the ingredients of a Woody Allen movie. Only it’s more of a drama than a comedy. Nevertheless it’s something Woody and the actors pull off excellently to make it work.