Movie Review: Still Alice (2014)

February 23, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Note: Getting this review in just before they announce Best Actress at the Oscars!

I was in the mood to be depressed, so I went head and watched Still Alice, a sobering drama about a renowned linguistics professor’s battle with early onset Alzheimer’s.

It’s a respectable take on the illness that doesn’t go the whole way in capturing the worst the disease, preferring to leave its titular character with her dignity in tact. In that sense, Still Alice isn’t as quite as heartbreaking as I braced myself for (I had the Kleenex ready and everything), though the film surprised me with its gripping depiction of Alice’s family members and the way each of them reacts to the devastating news.

Based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Still Alice begins with Dr Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) celebrating her 50th birthday. With a successful career, a loving husband and three fully grown children, there’s not much more she could ask for.

But of course, the signs of the illness soon begin to manifest, randomly, sporadically, and with varying degrees of seriousness. Co-sreenwriters and directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland — along with Moore in perhaps the best performance of her stellar career — do a solid job of conveying the initial shock and confusion from the onset of the symptoms. From a forgotten word here or a misplaced item there and getting gradually shittier at Words with Friends (I enjoyed this especially), to getting lost in what should be a familiar place, the trio manage to capture the angst as well as the physical disorientation through the use of camera panning and blurred backgrounds.

Moore’s deteriorating appearance is also used to match her crumbling mind. In the beginning I remarked on how amazing she looks for a 50 year old (54 in real life), though as the film progressed she grew increasingly lined and disheveled — though let’s face it, still pretty good for a 5o-year-old Academic who squeezed out three children.

It was a clever idea to make the subject of the illness a top linguistics professor who appeared to have everything, allowing the contrast ensuing from her illness to be even more stark. It’s bad enough for ordinary people, but for someone for whom words and language are her pride and define who she is, the blow must be incomprehensible. I know some will whine about how lucky Alice is to have money and family support compared to others suffering the disease, though it’s not the movie’s fault that it can only focus on one story.

I knew Moore was in it and is a favourite for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars, but I had no idea there were so many big stars in it. Alec Baldwin delivers a controlled, layered performance as Alice’s husband John, a brilliant researcher in his own right who struggles to deal with not only his wife’s deteriorating mental capacity but also the impact on his own career. The way he deals with losing he woman he has loved for so long, especially her losing perhaps the biggest reason for his love — her sharp mind and fierce career ambitions — is truly heart wrenching in more ways than one.

Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish (from Weeds) play Alice’s three children, each of whom reacts differently to the diagnosis. Stewart, who gets the meatiest role of the three, is especially good, displaying a tenderness and non-constipated demeanour I thought I would never see again after “The Saga”. But to her credit, she has proven that there is life after Twilight.

The main complaint I can make against the movie is that it plays out too conventionally, pretty much the way I anticipated a movie about Alzheimer’s to go. The film alludes to how bad things will eventually get, but spares us the pain of actually seeing it. Maintaining the dignity of sufferers and reminding us that she is “still Alice” no matter what, appears to be a priority. Some will applaud the sensitivity of the approach, while others will say it sanitises reality. Everyone will have an opinion on how it affects the film, though it is undeniable that it would could have been edgier had it dared to venture a little further from expectations.

And for all the great depiction of Alice’s family, the film did very little to look at how her relationship evolved with her friends. In fact, I don’t even remember her having any friends at all.

It is not an easy movie to watch, and it’s hard to call it an enjoyable experience. If it’s superb performances and depressingly gripping drama you’re after, however, it’s hard to go past Still Alice. The script is perhaps too conventional for the film to be something truly special, but Moore’s performance elevates it far above what it would otherwise have been.

3.5 stars out of 5

Last Minute 2015 Oscar Predictions

February 22, 2015 in Entertainment, Misc, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Crap. Can’t believe the Oscars are going to be on in less than 10 hours. Fortunately, I’ve now seen all the Best Picture nominees and almost all of the films in the major categories. So without further ado, here’s who I think will win and who I think should win. By the way, I have not been following the buzz and betting odds.

Best Picture:
Nominees: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
Prediction: Birdman
Should win: Boyhood

Best Actor:
Nominees: Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Michael Keaton (Birdman), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Prediction: Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Should win: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Best Actress:
Nominees: Marion Cottilard (Two Days, One Night), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), Reese Witherspoon (Wild)
Prediction: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Should win: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Best Supporting Actor
Nominees: Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Edward Norton (Birdman), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), JK Simmons (Whiplash)
Prediction: JK Simmons (Whiplash)
Should win: JK Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress
Nominees: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Laura Dern (Wild), Kiera Knightley (The Imitation Game), Emma Stone (Birdman), Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)
Prediction: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Should win: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Director
Nominees: 
Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)
Prediction: 
Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)
Should win: 
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Original Screenplay
Nominees: Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, Grand Budapest Hotel, Nightcrawler
Prediction:
Birdman
Should win:
 Boyhood

Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominees:
American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash 
Prediction:
Whiplash
Should win:
The Imitation Game

Best Animated Feature
Nominees: Big Hero 6, The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea, The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Prediction:
Big Hero 6
Should win: Big Hero 6

Cinematography
Nominees:
Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ida Mr Turner, Unbroken
Prediction:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: 
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Costume Design
Nominees:
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice, Into the Woods, Maleficent, Mr Turner
Prediction:
Into the Woods
Should win: 
Maleficent

Documentary Feature
Nominees: CitizenFour, Finding Vivian Maier, Last Days in Vietnam, The Salt of the Earth, Virunga
Prediction: CitizenFour
Should win: Finding Vivian Maier

Documentary Short
Nominees:
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, Joanna, Our Curse, The Reaper, White Earth
Prediction:
White Earth
Should win:
No idea

Editing
Nominees:
American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Whiplash
Prediction: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: Boyhood

Foreign Language Film
Nominees:
Ida, Leviathan, Tangerines, Timbuktu, Wild Tales
Prediction:
Leviathan
Should win:
No idea

Makeup and Hair
Nominees:
Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy
Prediction: 
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: 
Guardians of the Galaxy

Best Original Score
Nominees:
The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Interstellar, Mr Turner, The Theory of Everything
Prediction:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win:
The Theory of Everything

Best Original Song
Nominees:
Everything is Awesome (The Lego Movie), Glory (Selma), Grateful (Beyond the Lights), I’m Not Gonna MIss You (Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me), Lost Stars (Begin Again)
Prediction:
Glory (Sela)
Should win: 
Everything is Awesome (The Lego Movie)

Production Design
Nominees: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Interstellar, Into the Woods, Mr Turner
Prediction: 
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win:
Interstellar

Sound Editing
Nominees:
America Sniper, Birdman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Interstellar, Unbroken
Prediction:
American Sniper
Should win:
Interstellar

Sound Mixing
Nominees:
American Sniper, Birdman, Interstellar, Unbroken, Whiplash
Prediction:
Whiplash
Should win:
Whiplash

Visual Effects
Nominees:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, X-Men: Days of Future Past
Prediction:
Interstellar
Should win:
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Short Film (Animated)
Nominees:
The Bigger Picture, The Dam Keeper, Feast, Me and My Moulton, A Single Life
Prediction:
The Dam Keeper
Should win:
No idea

Short Film (Live Action)
Nominees:
Aya, Boogaloo and Graham, Butter Lamp, Parvaneh, The Phone Call
Prediction:
Aya
Should win:
No idea

Movie Review: Serena (2014)

February 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The first two times Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper collaborated on a film (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) the results were spectacular, earning the duo three Oscar nominations and a win. Their third joint effort, unfortunately, is a huge misstep for everyone involved.

Set in 1930s America, Serena focuses on a young logging businessman played by Bradley Cooper, who becomes enchanted by a beautiful young blonde. The titular Serena is not just some trophy wife either, as she proves herself to be a strong, intelligent and astute woman who doubles as a valuable business partner.

That’s about as much as I can divulge about the plot without spoilers, because the biggest problem with the film is that I’m not even sure how to describe it. Is it a drama? A romance? A thriller? A Western?! All or none of the above?

The frustrating thing about Serena is that I couldn’t figure out where it was going or what it was trying to achieve. The first half or so felt like it was simply going through the motions while trying to set something up down the track, though the twists in the plot end up coming across as somewhat random and surprising in a WTF way. So after all that, this is what the movie’s about? Maybe I missed all the clues and subtle hints along the way, but it felt like I had been watching a completely different film when it suddenly decided to go off the rails.

The script was adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Ron Rash, which, from what I have read, differs significantly from the film. I had a feeling that might have been the case because it’s obvious there’s much about the movie that didn’t turn out the way it was envisioned.

The performances were good, but you already knew that was the case with two top-class actors at the peak of their powers. The problem is that Bradley’s character is an unlikable, spineless schmuck who generates no empathy or sympathy, while Lawrence is miscast as the blonde bombshell. Her youth worked to her advantage in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but here her babyfaced sweetness doesn’t match the tragedy-hardened demeanour her character demands.

The supporting cast also features some impressive names such as Toby Jones, who sleepwalks through the thankless role of the local sheriff, and chameleon Rhys Ifans, who plays a bizarre logger with an unexplored past and personality.

On the whole, Serena fizzles by failing to provide its A-class actors with roles suited to their strengths or a coherent script with a clear direction. The result is a strange and unsatisfactory experience that will leave many viewers scratching their heads wondering how such a quality production could have gone so wrong.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Wild (2014)

February 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It’s apparently a coincidence that Wild shares a similar name and plot to one of my favourite movies of all time, 2007’s Into the Wild. In both films, the protagonist ventures on a solo expedition into the harsh wilderness that doubles as a journey of self discovery and personal realisation.

And so my impression of Wild could have gone one of two ways — I knew I would have either loved because it features the same strengths as Into the Wild, or hated it for being basically a shittier female version of the same story.

Fortunately, it was the former. While it’s true that Wild does have the same raw (wo)man-vs-wild feel and natural beauty of Into the Wild, it’s actually a very different movie with a very different journey.

Reece Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman who decides to embark on the arduous Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,000-plus-mile hike across the country. But she’s not a hiking enthusiast and has zero experience or developed survival skills to cope with the unforgiving weather that will make your skin burn and crack, the brutal terrain that will make your feet bleed, and the dangers of wild animals and creeps lurking at every corner. So the question is: why? Why the heck would anyone torture themselves by taking on a challenge like this?

Answering that question is what Wild sets out to do. It’s not a neatly wrapped answer either, but one that fits together like pieces of a complex puzzle. These pieces are unveiled one at a time through Nick Hornby’s remarkable script, which eschews screenwriting conventions by relying heavily on flashbacks to tell Cheryl’s story.

One of the first lessons I learned in screenwriting class is to avoid using too many flashbacks, which tend to draw audiences away from the immediacy of the present. In Wild, however, about half the narrative is told through short bursts of Cheryl’s past, from her childhood all the way to just before she commences her journey — all in non-linear fashion. They work here by presenting a shocking contrast between various stages of her life and helping us understand why she felt it was necessary for her to persist with what she set out to achieve.

The constant throughout Cheryl’s life is her mother Bobbi, played with a subtle strength and inner beauty by Laura Dern, who earned a deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination alongside Witherspoon’s second Best Actress nod (after she won it for Walk the Line). Witherspoon reportedly had no make up on for the vast majority of the movie, but to be honest I didn’t think it was a big deal because celebrities these days take such good care of themselves that she looks better than most people her age even at what’s supposed to be her very worst.

Into the Wild is about a young man’s ideals and learning about what it means to be alive, whereas Wild is about a slightly more mature woman seeking to rediscover who she is. Rather than hopes and dreams, it’s about dealing with pain, loss and regret, though the message is ultimately an uplifting one. It isn’t quite as edgy as I’ve made it sound, and it didn’t — for whatever reason — have the same level of resonance for me as Into the Wild, but Wild is still a highly engaging and moving drama elevated by two of the year’s best performances.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

February 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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If you don’t know the true story behind Foxcatcher, then I suggest you avoid reading anything about the movie — apart from this spoiler-free review, of course — and anything about its real-life characters, American Olympic wrestling brothers Dave and Mark Schultz, as well as multimillionaire philanthropist John du Pont.

I know I say that about every movie, but in this case it’s really for your own good. Foxcatcher is one of those slow, contemplative films so doused in melancholy that you know it will either end up turning around into something inspirational or that something tragic is going to happen. Not knowing what will transpire, however, makes all the difference in the world in terms of the film’s emotional payoff after sitting through more than two hours of anticipation.

That’s not to say Foxcatcher doesn’t deliver the goods if you know the background, for it’s a story so remarkable — with characters so conducive to psychological drama — that you’ll tend to forget it’s all based on true events.

There’s the young wrestler, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who has low self-worth — despite being an Olympic gold medalist — from living in his older brother’s shadow and a lack of financial stability. There’s Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), the more confident and savvy of the siblings whose career is tied down by his commitment to his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. And then there’s John du Pont (Steve Carell), the old, mysterious loner with mommy issues who wants to use his incredible wealth and power to build a patriotic national wrestling team with the Schultz brothers as his headliners.

Together, they form a tense triangle of power politics driven by money, loyalty, manipulation and control, all of which takes place before a backdrop of the competitive and often cutthroat world of amateur wrestling.

That description may make Foxcatcher sound like some kind of exciting thriller, though the pace is actually deliberately snail-like at times, full of solitary moments of silence, contemplation and self-reflection. Even the wrestling scenes are intentionally muted so that you don’t get any of that manufactured adrenaline that typically comes with Hollywood spots movies. But the emotions are undoubtedly there, and they actually feel more genuine and amplified. Those who have seen director Bennett Miller’s other acclaimed films Capote and Moneyball, will have an idea of the style I am referring to.

The three main actors have received critical acclaim for their performances, especially Carell and Ruffalo, who received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. To be honest, I actually liked Tatum’s performance the most. Far from just a beefcake, he was terrific at projecting Mark’s obvious lack of self-esteem and desire for approval. Ruffalo was very good too, though he’s always at that level, while I would have been fine had Carell missed out on he nomination in favour of Selma‘s David Oyelowo. Not to say Carell wasn’t great in this, but he still reminded me of Steve Carell behind all the makeup.

Interestingly, after watching the film, I went online to check out what their real-life counterparts looked like. I was surprised to discover that none of them really had much of a resemblance, except for maybe Tatum, though it’s a stretch to call him a lookalike of Mark Schultz.

One of the things about the film that I liked — but recognise others might be frustrated by — is how the relationships, motives and states of mind of the characters are left ambiguous and open to interpretation. Was it mentor and student, coach and wrestler, father and son, brother and brother, or all of the above? And was I imagining things or was there even something sexual lurking beneath the surface? I have a feeling Miller wanted to let the audience decide for themselves so they can try to make sense of why things turned out the way they did in the end.

That said, Mark Schultz and some other wrestlers have already confirmed that Foxcatcher more or less made up the dynamics of the relationships and the character traits of the central trio. For the record, however, Schultz eventually recanted some of his criticisms of the film and against Bennett (who is up for Best Director), saying that he “loved” the film.

I personally found Du Pont to be by far the most fascinating character, and was naturally disappointed that his psyche was not explored in as much depth as it probably ought to have been. That said, such an endeavour would have added more time to a movie that was already feeling a little on the long side, and in any case I understand that the screenplay was based on Mark Schultz’s book and thus from his perspective.

Flaws and creative licenses aside, Foxcatcher works as a compelling yet disturbing drama powered by three excellent performances and the direction of a master storyteller. I have a feeling it will go down as one of the more memorable films of 2014.

4 stars out of 5

 
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