Film reviews: Still Alice | Appropriate Behavior

Before winning the Academy Award last month for Still Alice, Julianne Moore’s dead-cert status inspired plenty of snarky comments that she’d win simply because she hadn’t already. Playing a linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, however, she really does deliver one of her finest ever performances, at once delicate, sad and frightening, and stripped free of the kind of Oscar grandstanding that movies about degenerative illness often inspire.

Julianne Moore in 'Still Alice'. Picture: Contributed

Still Alice (12A)

Directed by: Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer

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Starring: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth


Before winning the Academy Award last month for Still Alice, Julianne Moore’s dead-cert status inspired plenty of snarky comments that she’d win simply because she hadn’t already. Playing a linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, however, she really does deliver one of her finest ever performances, at once delicate, sad and frightening, and stripped free of the kind of Oscar grandstanding that movies about degenerative illness often inspire.

Charting the bewilderment and fear of a loving and highly intelligent woman trying to maintain her sense of self while Alzheimer’s destroys her cognitive abilities, the film casts Moore as Alice, a married 50-year-old academic with three grown-up kids and a comfortable life in New York City. She’s at a stage in her life where her biggest worry is her youngest daughter’s determination to forgo college to pursue a career as an actress (she’s played by Kristen Stewart), so the gradual, then sudden, realisation that her life as she knows it is being cruelly taken from her feels especially tragic – in the classic literary sense of the word.

The film presents this mostly from Alice’s point of view and that subjectivity is quietly terrifying in its early stages. Small conversational confusions, memory lapses, forgotten words and diminishing scores on electronic word games give way to fluffed memory tests in her doctor’s office and momentary panic when her daily run leaves her feeling lost and alone in a location she visits all the time. Directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (who suffers from ALS so has a very personal connection to the themes of the story) deploy a range of simple but effective visual tricks here, but none are quite as effective as simply training their camera on Moore’s face and refusing to cut away. This they do when Alice first visits a specialist. As she runs through her symptoms and her family history, Moore taps into the way an educated woman like Alice would overanalyse every question and overexplain every answer, mostly in a bid to help her doctor, but also to arrogantly offer her own pre-emptive diagnosis. It’s a coping mechanism, of course, and when the suspected diagnosis comes a few scenes later, she’s brittle and impatient, the rarity of the condition in a woman her age offering zero consolation for the impact she knows it will have on her life.

Thenceforth the decline is fairly rapid. Her job becomes untenable, her ability to do things on her own is lessened, and the genetic nature of her particular form of the disease means that on top of all this she has to process the guilt of having perhaps already passed it on. The Alzheimer’s time bomb is subtly enhanced too by the metaphorical ticking-time-bomb plot device that ensues when Alice prepares for the worst by hoarding sleeping pills and recording a video message instructing her future self on how to end her suffering. Granted, this sounds crass, but it is sensitively handled and leads to one of the film’s most heartbreaking and devastating moments when Alice finds the video file accidentally. Here, the sight of Moore acting opposite herself is incredibly moving as the self-assured professor on the computer screen patiently and reassuringly explains to the child-like woman watching it that she’s had a beautiful life and that this course of action represents the “next logical step”.

Has she the right to make such decisions about her future self? The film uses this moral conundrum to elucidate the key theme of Still Alice: how much of her true self is really bound up in those disintegrating memories that connect her to her past and present life and how much is predicated on who she is in a given moment? The film ultimately seeks to explore this via the impact Alice’s condition starts to have on her family, who rally round her to various degrees, some committing fully to her condition, others slyly trying to shirk responsibilities neither asked for nor imagined. Alec Baldwin in particular is terrific here as Alice’s husband, a medical professional himself, but one whose frustration at his helplessness starts taking its toll. Kate Bosworth does good work too as their other daughter, even if her character’s determination to have children of her own adds a touch of melodrama that seems a tad unnecessary.

It’s really Stewart, though, who shines brightest next to Moore. Their scenes together are sometimes combative, but also funny, tender and full of empathy; despite being the most estranged member of the family, Stewart’s character is the only one who thinks to ask Alice what it feels like and their reconnection in the end is what makes this desperately sad and poignant film optimistic: no matter how much you lose yourself you can always find your way back to the people you love the most.

Appropriate Behavior (15)

Directed by: Desiree Akhavan

Starring: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer

Desiree Akhavan’s casting in the most recent series of HBO’s Girls makes it somewhat inevitable that her debut film as a writer, director and star has already drawn comparisons with the output of Lena Dunham. The good news about relationship comedy Appropriate Behavior, though, is that such comparisons are valid only in the best way: like Dunham, Akhavan (pictured inset) has her own voice and point of view and she expresses them in an amusing and original way, even while cleaving to the classic structure of Annie Hall.

Taking the lead, she plays Shirin, the secretly bisexual, Brooklyn-based daughter of Iranian immigrants whose mid-20s rut has been hastened by her recent break-up with girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). A journalism graduate unsure about what she wants to do with her life – her “Middle Eastern” exoticism is no longer the selling point it used to be on the local paper that once employed her – Shirin is mostly trying to figure out the age-old question: “How do two people meet, decide they like one another, and keep on liking each other?”

Akhavan delivers lines like that with an understated naturalism. As a performer she’s self-effacing, and as a writer her wry observations – on everything from New York hipsters and Shirin’s Iranian heritage to the complicated self-esteem issues wrapped up in buying new underwear – tumble out of her characters like throwaway bits of dialogue rather than overly written gags. She’s good too at depicting the realities of relationships. Jumping back and forth between the aftermath of Shirin’s relationship with Maxine, its origins and its pre-break-up souring, the film may not be attempting to reinvent the wheel here, but it doesn’t have to: what’s fresh and new are the details.

The surge of excitement that comes from meeting someone with whom you have instant chemistry, for instance, is entertainingly depicted via a pot-smoking scene in which Shirin and Maxine realise they’re the same kind of stoned person and promptly melt into one another. The sexual fluidity of Shirin’s generation is also subtly explored by her unwillingness to come out to her parents. Shirin is not ashamed of who she is, but she isn’t yet ready to upset the vaguely co-dependent relationship she’s formed with them by forcing her mum and dad to acknowledge that she has relationships with women and men.

Which all sounds very modish (and there are disastrous threesomes and plenty of ill-advised hook-ups as well), but that’s OK: Akhavan presents everything in Appropriate Behavior in a way that’s honest, heartfelt and relatable – and very funny too. It certainly marks her out as an interesting new talent.

new releases

White Bird in a Blizzard (15)

Directed by: Gregg Araki

Starring: Eva Green, Shailene Woodley, Thomas Jane


Having been one of the leading lights of the New Queer cinema movement that contributed to the vibrancy of the late 1980s/early 1990s American indie scene, Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin) has opted to return to that period with his latest treatise on messed-up adolescence, turning it into a typically kitschy landscape more redolent of 1950s suburban conformity than the era that birthed grunge. That’s clearly part of Araki’s overall strategy to confound expectations, though, especially in a movie that also sees fit to cast Eva Green as the depressed mother of Divergent star Shailene Woodley, despite being only 11 years her senior.

Incongruities such as these – and the fact that Green can’t realistically play a woman whose allure is fading – reflect the unreal way life appears to its teenage (and later college-age) protagonist. Raised by ineffectual parents trapped in a loveless marriage, Kat (Woodley) is trying to process the complicated abandonment issues she feels after her mother disappears. The mystery of the latter is explored via dreams, therapy sessions and some amateur sleuthing on the part of Kat and her friends. Despite these noirish overtones and an intriguing sting in the tale, Araki isn’t much interested in crafting a compelling thriller. Instead he uses the genre trappings to explore the way sexuality drives and damages people – which is an interesting idea, but one that’s sometimes hard to care about thanks to the film’s wildly inconsistent tone.
Hyena (18)

Directed by Gerard Johnson Starring: Stephen Graham, Peter Ferdinando, Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring


Writer/director Gerard Johnson here puts a distinctly British spin on the dirty cop movie – a subgenre of police procedural that’s been a mainstay of American cinema since The French Connection, but was brought into disrepute on these shores recently with the cartoon silliness of The Sweeney. Memories of that film are mercifully eradicated here; Johnson’s approach hews closer to the raw, in-the-moment immediacy of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (with which it shares several cast members) than any ersatz attempt to bring shimmering hi-tech Hollywood gloss to the narcotics-, vice- and gang-plagued streets of modern day London.

In a metaphorical nod to the inequities of the financial system, Hyena operates in world in which the ruthless principles of the free market are expressed by hacking the limbs off the competition and legal barriers to trade are eradicated with a knife through the throat of whichever member of the authorities happens to be in the way. The bad old days of the 1980s – when bent coppers could let gangsters operate for a percentage of the profits – are long gone, replaced by an even more savage and nihilistic world in which a new breed of criminals no longer care that the racist work-hard/play-hard reprobates of the drug squad want a piece of the action.

The film joins the latter at the very point at which they’re rudely awakened to this changing state of affairs, with Johnson building an intricate plot around the efforts of the squad’s leader, Michael Logan (Starred Up’s Peter Ferdinando), to get close to a new Albanian gang while simultaneously trying to keep the police complaints commission (led by Richard Dormer) off his back and negotiate a tricky partnership with an old colleague (played by Stephen Graham). Needless to say, he soon finds his world imploding, something Johnson enhances with startling flourishes that marry sound, music and visuals with feverish intensity.