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My Top 10 Movies Of 2014

Hi. I know it’s been a long time for me to publish a blog. That’s a common trait of mine that if I do a lot of writing for one period of time, I tire out for a long time. That explains the lack of blogging. However I hope to get back to the process over the next while. I’m planning some more movie reviews and even a political topic or two.

Here, I’ll be posting my long-awaited Top 10 films list of the year. Here are the links to past years:

When it comes to reviewing movies, I’m not your typical ‘film snob.’ Most of the time I’m okay with the typical commercial Hollywood movies as long as it’s done well. I approach them with the attitude: “Okay I know it’s your job to sell big but give the audience their money’s worth.” I also have my own approach to the artsy film-fest fare type of films: “Okay I know you want to be creative and do your own inspired thing but don’t forget this will be shown in front of an audience. Don’t alienate them.”

That’s how I approach films. That’s also how I approach my Top 10 list. Bonus points are given to films that go beyond my expectations. With that in mind, here are my Top 10 films of 2014:

American Sniper appears to be the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) but it's a lot more.

  1. American Sniper
  2. Boyhood
  3. Selma
  4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  5. Wild
  6. Whiplash
  7. The Imitation Game
  8. Birdman
  9. The Theory of Everything
  10. Gone Girl

Honorable Mention:

  • Still Alice
  • Ida
  • Foxcatcher
  • The LEGO Movie
  • Interstellar
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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.

VIFF 2014 Review: Still Life

Still Life is a story of a man who's as alone as the deceased subjects he works with.

Still Life is a story of a man (played by Eddie Marsan) who’s as alone as the deceased subjects he works with.

Still Life was the last film to do with the VIFF that I saw. It was a surprise that I saw such a downer film as my last one but it wasn’t a complete downer. In fact it has a lot of good elements worth watching.

The film begins with John May doing his job. He’s a council case worker in South London who looks for relatives of those found dead and alone. It’s not an easy job to do. In fact it’s very hard sometimes when he deals with relatives who want nothing to do with the deceased. Not even their own children. He arranges funerals for them even if he ends up being the only one attending and gives them a respectful burial. He even takes the pictures of those whom he was the sole attendee at their funeral and puts them in his own personal album.

Problem is John himself is an ‘alone’ person living by himself in an apartment with no real contact with neighbors. His job which he’s been doing for 22 years appears to be his only real purpose or his only interaction. However the news breaks one day. The company’s changed ownership and he’s about to be laid off by the new owners, feeling his services to those he buries are too ‘costly’ and are making the move to ‘efficiency.’

John wants to make his last case work especially since the deceased, Billy Stoke, lives in the same apartment as him. He comes across a photo album that shows pictures of his daughter ending in her teen years. He tries to get more information like from two people on the streets who used to drink with Billy. He finds out that Billy used to live in Truro. He meets with people who knew him like his ex-wife and former co-workers but none are interested in paying their last respects to Billy.

Finally John meets his daughter Kelly but she doesn’t want anything to do with Billy either. John proceeds with having a tombstone made and finding a burial spot. Just when John thought it was all over for him, he gets a call from Kelly. Kelly hears all that John has done and is happy about it. She even invites John to come see her on the weekend, to which John accepts and appears to finally come to life. Then comes a moment no one expects. It appears to set up for a very sad ending but instead ends on a positive note that appears appropriate.

It’s a question whether the film was trying to convey a message about lonely people or not. Mind you it does touch on a lot of things such as some who left other relatives estranged, some who lost all their friends because of their surly attitude or some who just have no one. There’s one scene that catches my eye and that’s where John looks over the photo album of those he arranged a funeral for. As each picture was seen, it reminds you that those people that died alone with no other loved ones used to be a somebody to others some time ago in their life. Sad how life made a turn for the worse for them. It is good to see someone like John May out there who does give such people found dead and alone a dignified last respects. Another scene that stands out is when John arranges Billy’s grave at the cemetery. Soon he sees the people that are to replace him and what they do is just simply cremate the bodies and pour the ashes in a mass grave. No funeral, no last respects, no nothing. Hey, it’s more ‘efficient.’ It only makes what John’s always been doing look like the right thing.

The most surprising thing about this film is that this first appears to be the downest of the down films ever made. It has all the making for it: a story of a man who has no family and friends trying to give a respectful last respects to those who died alone. The film does have a morbid feel to it and even John looks like the walking dead at times. What kept it from being a complete downer were some humorous moments. They were easy to spot. The film had a way of making humor of certain moments come unexpectedly like John at the intersection, John eating that shepherd’s pie after being told what Billy did after he was fired or even when a drunkard pours liquor on Billy’s coffin as a farewell. Even the scenes near the end as John is seen smiling to Kelly gives the movie an unexpected warmth and a welcomed warmth. That scene as John sees Kelly off was that moment where John appeared to truly be alive. Even the ending added to the quality. It didn’t end suddenly fluffy and happy like so many Hollywood movies would do.  The audience would first think this will be the saddest ending in all of movie history added to the quality. Instead it doesn’t as it ends with an ending that will have you saying: “Yes, very appropriate.” To this day, the ending of Kids remains the most depressing film ending I’ve seen.

This was a very good film written and directed by Unberto Pasolini. He takes what would normally be a very down topic and makes a very good and very watchable story about it. This has to be his best work since his production work on The Full Monty. Also good to see he didn’t give a fluffy ending that was still positive despite the circumstances. It’s not to say that it didn’t have its imperfections. Like we don’t know exactly why John himself is all alone. Did his parents die? Was he ostracized? Was he so fixated on his work, he ignored everything and everyone else around him? There’s that lack of clarity.

Excellent acting from Eddie Marsan. For all intents and purposes, this was his film. He does a very good performance of a character who actually feels like the walking dead. Only he adds humorous elements to him and makes him into a 3D person rather than a stock character he can easily become. The supporting actors were also good as a whole however it’s Joanne Froggatt who’s the one with a role with the most dimension. The only other standout is the music from Rachel Portman. It does a good job of creating the mood.

Still Life is a surprising film in more ways than one. It makes a film about loneliness with a protagonist being its epitome and actually makes it quite watchable rather than completely depressing.

And that does it for reviewing VIFF films. I didn’t have time to see them all. In fact there some I had a chance for but I was either ill or too exhausted to see. Anyways it made for an exciting festival. My wrap-up of this year’s VIFF coming soon.