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

 

 

 

 

 

Black Rock

Lake Bell, Kate Bosworth and Katie Aselton in Black Rock

 

 

Three young women are chased around an island by three crazed ex-soldier guys in Katie Aselton’s boo-goes-there horror story which would slot nicely into the big book of feminist films if it weren’t for the gratuitous (oh come on) nudity.

Not that there’s anything wrong with god-given nakedness. But back to the film. Directed by Aselton and co-written with her partner, Mark Duplass, Black Rock takes three old schoolfriends, Aselton, Lake Bell and Katie Bosworth, sends them off to a remote island they used to visit as kids, but not before pointing out that one of the three did something bad with another of the trio’s boyfriend some years back, and that the wound is still suppurating.

Out on the island, the girls (“women” doesn’t seem quite right; “ladies” definitely not) bump into three ex-army guys, one of whom is a vague friend of a friend. But things go from uneasily friendly to extremely nasty in a short time after a bit of booze, some unwise campfire flirting with one of the soldiers, a rape attempt and retaliation in the form of a big lethal rock to the skull.

The other two guys – we have just learnt that they got dishonourable discharges for some seriously nasty shit out in Afghanistan – decides for justice in the form of death.

But I’m telling you the plot when what all you want to know about is the nudity. Well, you could say that it is justified by the story Aselton is telling, since two of the girls have swum out to a boat, failed to get into it and are now back on dry land in wet clothes and the quickest way to get warm is… take your clothes off?

Does it last long? No. Does it matter? Maybe, because though Aselton is a good actress (though her showing in The Puffy Chair is all I’m going on) I’m not sure about her as a director.

But she’s competent enough for a cat-and-mouse thriller that flirts with themes of sex, power and violence – Should women be able to cocktease for ever and get away with it? Is sex a form of power that women use over women too? – only to abandon them as the film slides into its final third.

Director Aselton moves things along briskly, gets decent “girls together” performances from her cast and knows how to squeeze atmosphere from a restless camera, minimal rig and a soundtrack of strings and washy synths.

But I’m not sure it’ll be remembered for any of those things, so much as being the film in which a female director asked her cast to get naked because the script strictly demanded it.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Black Rock – at Amazon