Still Alice

Kristen Stewart and Julianne Moore in Still Alice

 

 

A super confident woman, top of her game, a linguistics professor, one day discovers herself grasping for a word while she’s giving a lecture. This being the movies, where a cough in one scene leads to coughing up blood in the next, we automatically suspect she’s got Alzheimer’s. The title providing another nudge (why Still?). And so it turns out, in a movie that seems determined to put a polish on the disease of the week movie, and largely succeeds.

 

Polish number one is that it’s not just any old Alzheimer’s but familial Alzheimer’s, in which the gene – should you have been unlucky enough to have inherited it from an affected parent – means you have 100 per cent chance of getting Alzheimer’s yourself.

 

But really the claims for genre transcendence are made by the quality of cast that writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have attracted to the project. Julianne Moore plays the unlucky Dr Alice Howland and in the scenes set in the doctor’s consulting room, where the camera rests entirely on her face as she told one awful truth after another, the wisdom of that casting decision becomes obvious. Matching her in strength and subtlety is Alec Baldwin as her uxorious but never sappy husband, Kate Bosworth as her prickly daughter, Hunter Parrish as the largely superfluous son and Kristen Stewart, clearly making a decision to step back from the spotlight, as the youngest daughter, who finds herself promoted to more of a caring role as the rest of the family quietly shuffle backwards.

 

It’s also an unusually nuanced film, and gives its victim far more agency than we’re used to in this sort of thing. So, alongside gruesome scenes like the one in which Alice pisses her light grey joggers – not a good look – and fails to recognise her daughter, there are others where she clearly uses her advancing condition to her advantage, ducking out of a dreary dinner party, or reading her youngest daughter’s diary and putting it down to “my illness”.

 

They’re an unusual duo, Glatzer and Westmoreland, who you might remember as the names behind 2001’s The Fluffer, a well acted, quirky gay rom-com. And might not remember as the names behind 2013’s The Last of Robin Hood, which cast an excellent Kevin Kline as Errol Flynn in his final skiddy years (and, incidentally, gave a small role to Errol’s grandson, Sean). That’s when they’re not working as producer/consultants on America’s Next Top Model.

 

That TV background will count against them in some quarters, where this film will be pegged as a disease of the weeker not worthy of even a first look. It’s irrefutable: that is exactly what it is, and the plaintive piano and string quartet soundtrack isn’t trying to deny it either. But no matter how mangey and emotionally manipulative, every dog has its day. And this, ladies and gents, is that canine.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Boogie Nights

Mark Wahlberg and Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

30 December

 

 

Jeff Lynne born, 1947

On this day in 1947, Jeffrey Lynne was born in Birmingham, UK. Jeff was an early starter and by the age of 16 had formed a band in Birmingham, called first The Hellcats, then The Handicaps, and finally The Andicaps. By 18 he had learnt the rudiments of the studio recording process after buying a Bang & Olufsen BeoCord 2000 reel to reel tape machine, and joined a band called The Nightriders, who changed their name to The Idle Race. In 1970 he joined The Move, at the invitation of former Nightriders/Idle Race member Roy Wood. Together with guitarist/singer Wood, and drummer Bev Bevan, also of The Move, Lynne formed The Electric Light Orchestra, a rock/classical hybrid band designed to function in tandem with The Move. In fact the ELO almost immediately replaced The Move, both in the affections of the founders, and musically. Both Lynne and Wood were multi-instrumentalists adept at studio production and both saw themselves as frontmen. By 1972 – in a clear case of “too many chiefs” – Wood had left, leading to Lynne taking full creative control of ELO. Lynne tempered the rockier edge of the band over time, and ELO became a pop band with an increasingly complex studio sound. ELO became one of the most successful bands of the 1970s, though they were never regarded as cool by music papers such as the New Musical Express. During the 1980s the band’s popularity began to wane and Lynne moved into producing, including for George Harrison on his album Cloud Nine, much of which was co-written by Lynne. This led to the formation of The Traveling Wilburys, with Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison. In the 1990s Lynne produced the Anthology albums for the surviving Beatles. Since then he has produced and written for Tom Jones, Aerosmith, Regina Spektor and Joe Walsh.

 

 

 

Boogie Nights (1997, dir: Paul Thomas Anderson)

Is Boogie Nights Paul Thomas Anderson’s best movie? Yes, he’s hit high notes since, with There Will Be Blood for instance, but Boogie Nights seems to have it all. And by “it all” I don’t just mean Heather Graham naked – at one point nearly every film seemed to feature Heather Graham naked. A souped-up version of his 1988 half-hour film The Dirk Diggler Story, it tells the story of the smalltown boy with a big asset in the trouser area, who becomes a porn star in its last golden age, when films were shot on real film, and had storylines. OK, so the storylines were as scant as Graham’s outfits but hey… Anderson conjures the period brilliantly and seems to make absolutely no wrong turns at all. Casting Mark Wahlberg, then still better known as Marky Marky of Calvin Klein underwear fame, was as brilliant as getting old Burt Reynolds to turn up and remind us what a real shit-eating grin looks like. Playing Jack Horner, Reynolds is folksy perfection as a porn producer who has borrowed half of Colonel Sanders’ finger-lickin’ shtick and gathered around him a surrogate family of performers, technicians, hangers-on, dealers, schemers, but not many friends. Boogie Nights is about the business of making porn, the production-line process of it, the people it sucks in and spits out, how the smart ones treat it as a job and how the dim ones are beguiled by it and ruined. Wahlberg, as Dirk Diggler, tightropes along that dividing line all the way through, surrounded by characters such as new best friend Reed (John C Reilly), sad-eyed assistant director Bill (William H Macy) and mother figure Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) who are all also negotiating the sticky path. The music of ELO fits the bill perfectly – bouncy, a touch of cheese – alongside a great clutch of poptastic tunes that dial us back to the late 1970s (Boney M, Andrew Gold, Hot Chocolate among them). Meanwhile Anderson’s camera also takes us back in time, in scenes that recall the roaming camera and complex long tracking shots of Robert Altman or Martin Scorsese. A film about the 1970s made in the style of the masters of the 1970s, with a big cast of well defined characters all with their own story arcs, that’s not easy. Following on from Hard Eight, PT Anderson’s mood piece about gamblers and other dwellers on the periphery, Boogie Nights announces the arrival in town of a new master.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Wahlberg’s breakthrough
  • Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film
  • A cast including Anderson regulars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, Alfred Molina
  • Robert Elswit’s cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Boogie Nights – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Magnolia

Tom Cruise in Magnolia

 

 

Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to Boogie Nights disappointed those who were hoping for more Dirk Diggler and his prosthetic schlong. At 182 minutes it also caught out those who were watching at the cinema with a beer or two inside them – knotted legs don’t make for maximum movie fun. At home with a pause button it’s pure luxury. Stylistically it’s heavily in debt to one of Anderson’s readily acknowledged influences, Robert Altman – the overlapping dialogue, the wandering camera and the faintly disengaged performances. By which I mean the actors are not all constantly presenting three-quarter profiles to camera (no, not even Tom Cruise).

Yes, Tom Cruise. How often is it that you can see Tom Cruise in a film that’s not a Tom Cruise film? In terms of plot Magnolia is multi-stranded, with lots of characters, each starring, to some extent, in their own mini-movie. That’s Altmanesque too (see Short Cuts). But Anderson’s theme is all his own. He follows a bunch of flash, empty characters – among them the trophy wife (Julianne Moore), the over-eager sex guru (Tom Cruise), the former child star (William H Macy), the ineffectual policeman (John C Reilly) – as they descend into an existential inferno of their own making. Except for one man (Jason Robards), whose take on existential activity is coloured by the fact that the Grim Reaper is sharpening the scythe in the hospital ward his intubated body is currently occupying. No, not literally the Grim Reaper, that was a figure of speech. Though at the end of the film, after he’s spun his separate stories closer to coherence, Anderson does do something which shatters the absolute matter-of-factness of everything that’s come before. And if you haven’t got wind of his most oddball of endings, I won’t ruin it. Magnolia is not a film for plot-junkies but it does deliver something rather magical in its place – virtuoso zeitgeist film-making with a message that could have been lifted from a medieval morality play.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 Magnolia – at Amazon

 

 

 

Far from Heaven

 

 

Todd Haynes wasn’t the first director to pay homage to Douglas Sirk, creator of teary melodramas such as Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life. Fassbinder had had a go with Fear Eats the Soul, a homage to All That Heaven Allows. And Haynes took the same source material for Far from Heaven, which nods like a demented thing at Sirk’s magnum opus. But why turn to something so apparently unfashionable? Three big reasons immediately suggest themselves – Sirk’s sweetshop colour palette, his unashamedly lip-chewing approach, his blowsy plot lines, they are all the antithesis of arthouse film-making and an ideal starting point for an auteur hoping to stir things up, which is exactly what Haynes was trying to do back then. All three fight for supremacy in Far from Heaven – which evokes the Tupperware/Avon lady world of the 1950s better than any film since Sirk. Then there’s that plot – perfect company wife Julianne Moore turns to black gardener Dennis Haysbert for succour after discovering her husband (Dennis Quaid) kissing another man. And the melodrama, that surely doesn’t need to be spelled out – shocked neighbours, uncomprehending, weeping children, Haysbert’s quiet dignity, Quaid’s character heading off to the doctor to get “cured”. It’s a rococo sweep and a half, played straight, served up in a movie so obsessively made there’s not a hint of an anachronistic slip.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Far from Heaven – at Amazon