Still Alice (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Still Alice (2014)

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Alice is a lover of words.  She does research into linguistics and is driven by a passion in her life which draws people irresistibly toward her.  But on a run one day Alice suddenly realizes she has no idea where she is.  A neurologist confirms the worst, she has Alzheimer's, and Still Alice is the document of her life from this point on.  Still Alice is directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, and stars Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart.

Where am iPerspective is critical when watching movies.  Ideally, any decision the director and cinematographer's are making on a production should hinge on whose perspective the film is taking place from.  Watching Still Alice I grew more disinterested and less sad about her predicament as time went on.  I realized, in one of the only great moments in Still Alice, that the film is not about Alice's world at all.  Really, there's no solid perspective keeping any of the film together, and without a solid perspective Still Alice reverts to presenting a nightmare with dignity.

At one point in Still Alice, Alice says that she wishes she had cancer instead of Alzheimer's.  This seemed an unusually cruel thing for someone who is written as respectable and kind as her, but Still Alice proves her point.  With terminal cancer there is, barring some miracle, an end to the story.  With Alzheimer's there is no end, only varying degrees of disintegration which may eat away the recognizable aspects of that person.  Bringing back the issue with perspective, the great Mike Nichols 2001 adaptation of Wit locked us in with the cancer-ridden Vivian so thoroughly I can still feel her eyes burning into mine during one of her many monologues.

Vivian is a character, a person with vitality and passion who fights a good fight before dying.  Alice is a subject, someone whose condition is to be observed from a careful distance lest we get too caught up in her perspective.  Nichols forcing us into Vivian's life treats her condition with respect.  The co-directors and screenwriters of Still Alice, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, have placed Alice in a petri dish to observe with elements of domestic drama.  This is not a character, but a science experiment.

There are small touches to Still Alice that give perspective into Alice's condition, like the word memory test she creates for herself.

There are small touches to Still Alice that give perspective into Alice's condition, like the word memory test she creates for herself.

Consider the pristine world cinematographer Denis Lenoir crafts with Glatzer and Westmoreland.  I can recall little shadow in the world of Still Alice, many centered conversations as Alice tries to talk through her problems, and the details rarely go out of focus.  This makes sense from the perspective of Alice at the beginning of the film when all she has is a memory scare when out for a jog.  But does this make sense when she's in the full throes of Alzheimer's and can barely speak to her daughter?  There's a shift of perspective between those two scenes, and those shifts are occurring all throughout Still Alice.

This is why it was so hard for me to get an emotional grip on Alice's condition and empathize with her.  With Alice in the same deteriorated condition we'll switch to her family talking to her or enjoying the nightlife with what awareness she still has.  Then in the next scene the edges of the screen will be blurry and indistinct as Alice gets confused or lost.  The oddest perspective comes from when Alice goes into her home to use the restroom and discovers she can't remember where it is.  But the direction is clear, the geography of the house is neatly laid out, and we know where she is even if she doesn't.  Isn't this the moment to really engross us in Alice's perspective, when she's at one of her weakest states and knows it?

But that doesn't happen, so we sit from afar and observe Alice instead of being put in a visual space where we can empathize with her.  I agree that a film consisting entirely from the perspective of someone losing their identity would be more difficult to sit through, but it would be more respectful, painful, and honest.  There are moments in Still Alice where I can see this film, like when Alice is lying on the couch and is aware people are talking about her but are blurred and indistinct as Alice lets the world pass her by.

Stewart brings as much heart as Moore does to the film even if her role is not as complicated.

Stewart brings as much heart as Moore does to the film even if her role is not as complicated.

Issues with the visuals aside, the screenplay is peppered with undercooked details that try to suggest far more about Alice's family than they really do.  One sister (Kate Bosworth) carries a grudge against the other (a stellar Kristen Stewart) for undisclosed and barely commented on reasons.  Families have problems, ok, but what does this speak to in regard to Alice and her condition?  Bosworth's role is especially limp considering she comes onscreen, scowls for a bit, has children and promptly vanishes.

What gives Still Alice its power is the rightfully lauded performance by Julianne Moore.  She realizes that to suffer from Alzheimer's is not to become a different person entirely as the disease progresses, but to become a shade of that person.  The transformation is painful and sad, watching her confident manner of speech and bright eyes give way to stuttered words and eyes lost in thought.  Beyond the physical, she utters the most painful lines in the film when she sees her daughter after a play, cheerfully greets the young woman, and wonders if she'll be around for the season.  For Moore and Stewart, who often elevate Still Alice with their warm relationship, this is the key scene to the film.

I have no doubt the creators of Still Alice had noble intentions with the film.  But it's style, the indecisive way of committing to a point of view, distances us from Alice so completely that I felt bad not for her disease - but because the people filming her didn't seem to want to really get to know her.  Perhaps it's a circular way of making a point Alice does in the film, that people distance themselves from those with Alzheimer's because they become, "...ridiculous, incapable, comic."  But the sin is committed, and I remain unmoved.

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Tail - Still AliceStill Alice (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.
Starring Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. I was surprisingly affected by this. And I think most of that has to be because of the wonderful ensemble and just how much they’re willing to dig deep and down into these roles. Good review.

    • Thanks for the comment Dan. You’re right, the cast is superb and they dig into what they have. The question is just how much they have to work with. Not much, but they’re great at what they do.

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