Still Alice

Posted by Michael Parsons on January 16, 2015 in / No Comments


As such a prolific and versatile actor, it’s not surprising that Julianne Moore occasionally takes one-note roles in films line “Nonstop” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay”; she’s reserving her singular talent for projects like “Still Alice”, an unsentimental tear-jerker that depicts the horrible realities of Alzheimer’s disease in mature, relatable, sometimes even humorous terms.

Based on the bestseller by neuroscientist Lisa Genova and adapted for the screen by writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (“The Last of Robin Hood”), this film could easily have become a sappy movie-of-the-week if tweaked slightly in the wrong direction. While traces of such trappings exist at the very fringes of the picture, the filmmakers clearly have a deep enough respect for the subject matter not to besmirch it with soap-grade melodrama (though this outstanding cast could probably make something compelling out of even the most threadbare cliché). This is a rare, wonderful film.

125621_galWhether or not you buy into awards buzz, Moore deserves every bit of attention she’s been receiving (including an Oscar nomination) for her portrayal of  Alice Howland, a revered 50-year-old linguistics professor at Columbia University. Alice has a great marriage (Alec Baldwin plays her husband Tom), three grown children (Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart and Hunter Parrish) and a mean “Words With Friends” game.

Then she receives a life-changing diagnosis. After some memory lapses —  a few forgotten words during a speech and a scary episode during a jog — a PET scan corroborates her doctor’s suspicions: Alice has early-onset Alzheimer’s. Even more terrifying, the disease is familial, meaning there’s a chance it has been passed along to the kids .

Slowly stripped of the very cognitive attributes on which she’s an expert, as well as what makes her the exuberant, life-embracing person that she is, Alice struggles to maintain her dignity as the symptoms worsen. While the progression is harrowing, something an over-actor might have inadvertently turned into a comic perversion of the source material (particularly a later scene in which a terrified, dementia-stricken Alice soils hers pants because she can no longer find the bathroom), there’s an optimism about the film that carries us through the more painful moments as if the outcome weren’t inevitable.

Considering what she’s capable of on-screen, Moore seems to have perfected the art of taking on absurdly demanding material without ever scene-chewing, and it allows room for her co-stars to shine, notably Baldwin as her steadfastly loyal, loving hubby, and especially Stewart as her youngest daughter Lydia, an aspiring thespian with whom Alice often butts heads. Both give excellent performances (Baldwin is a very convincing crier), but it’s Stewart’s character who is integral in conveying the film’s message about compassion, a weight that the “Twilight” star seems to carry with an effortless grace.

Perhaps the most telling moment in the film comes from a video message that Alice records for herself with instructions on what to do when things get really bad. She says: “Your life has been anything but tragic”. This is the feeling that resonated with me after the credits rolled. “Still Alice” is more than a great drama, it’s a genuinely moving experience.

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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