Still Alice

The 87th Academy Awards may well have a Best Actor winner and Best Actress winner both portraying persons with debilitating and arduous illnesses. Still Alice (2014) tells the story of brilliant Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), an accomplished linguistics professor at Columbia, happily married to her husband John (Alec Baldwin) with three grown children. Being a master of words, when she starts forgetting words, she suspects something is awry — and she unfortunately is right. She’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. But wait, it gets worse: she has a very rare familial form of Alzheimer’s, which means any of her children who have the gene *will* get it. Oof. Chances are that if you’re about to see Still Alice, you more or less know what this film is about, so the experience comes from watching a bright, resourceful woman transform into a shell of a human being, in the span of 101 minutes. Again, oof.

Much like Eddie Redmayne’s role in The Theory of EverythingJulianne Moore scenes were not filmed chronologically, which means she had to switch from one stage of Alzheimer’s to another in the same day. Her knowledge of this woman’s deterioration was so heightened that she was able to find the right stage for each scene, creating what is a heartbreakingly seamless film. Alzheimer’s disease is the cruelest of all diseases, and that despair is featured by Moore’s incredible performance. In many, many instances, a book is usually the better form for a story, but I imagine that one can only go so far in his imagination of a disease like this. It’s profound to the utmost degree to actually see a woman diminish before your very eyes. You see the spark fizzle from her eyes. You see the personality evaporate. You see her presence vanish, as she becomes a ghostly shell of a human being. Only Julianne Moore can achieve such a nuanced and bleak transformation. She is committed 100% and is unyielding — much like the disease she is emulating. Whether it’s from solo scenes where she is speaking to one person or interacting with her family, you literally see Alice disappear into nothing, which is devastating.

The film is well made, using camera dissolves and fades to illustrate Alice’s episodes. While that is something that can be described thoroughly in a book, this way the audience can see her episodes on screen. The music also aides in that respect. The soundtrack is mostly sweeping and melancholic, but when Alice has an episode, the music becomes dissonant and anxious, aurally personifying the panic that Alice is feeling. It’s very affective and even uncomfortable.

Moore is supported prominently by Kristen Stewart, who plays Alice’s daughter Lydia. Lydia is a struggling actor in LA with a history of butting heads with her mother, but she becomes the person who most connects and helps with Alice’s condition. Stewart delivers some of the classic detached twenty-something persona expected from her, but there’s a layer of depth underneath her eyes when she interacts with Moore. While you can see the frustration that Lydia feels sometimes toward her mother, there’s a deeper, thick layer of love that grounds both of them.

I recommend seeing Still Alice only on your best of days, because you may be somewhat functional afterwards. Don’t see it if you’re already sad. Still Alice is a tragic tale whose ending you already know. The experience comes from watching her demise into oblivion and thanking God that your parents are healthy.

Blue Jasmine

Quote of the film: “But that’s all history boys, I met someone, I’m a new person.” — Jasmine

If you know me at all, you’ll know that Cate Blanchett is one of my all-time favorite actors. She is both elegant and raw, beautiful yet cold. When I heard about this film, I was incredibly eager to watch it. Many months past and I’ve finally made it to a Redbox dispenser on a thundersnowy Chicago day. 

Once again, I wasn’t completely sure what exactly I was in for. Redbox labeled Blue Jasmine as a comedy, but I was skeptical. An hour and a half later, I can confirm that genre labels truly have no meaning. While it is a Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine (2013) hardly ever dips into the comedic side of the spectrum, if at all. It’s a story about Jasmine (Blanchett) and her fall from grace. Jasmine is a woman who has the fortune of meeting the successful, rich businessman who spoils her with wealth, class, and sophistication. She entertains with lavish parties in New York, enjoys the high-life, all while ignoring all the imperfections in her life: her husband’s infidelity, her sister’s disappointment of a life, her husband’s unlawful business affairs — and her increasingly debilitating anxiety.

The film alternates between present-day scenes in San Francisco and flashbacks  of Jasmine’s old life in New York. Towards the beginning, Jasmine comes across as a condescending albeit naive wife of a shady businessman, but as the flashbacks progress, we realize that all her current strife — losing all her wealth and possessions, moving out of her beautiful homes, relocating to San Francisco with her merely ordinary sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) — was caused by her actions. Because of that revelation, the various scenes where Jasmine is talking to herself with a blank stare or talking the ears off innocent bystanders can be seen as a way for her to complain about herself or attempt to find closure with herself. She has a horrible time in San Francisco — trying to remake herself by finding a job, going to school, looking for love — and everything is plagued by her guilt. She ruined her life, her sister’s life, her family’s life, and she has to realize that she can’t fix any of it.

Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of troubled Jasmine is incredible. Her American accent is flawless, and her characteristic voice is a cocktail of deep and robust tones. She makes it so easy to dislike her, with her pretentious speech and body language. What is particularly remarkable about Blanchett’s performance is how quickly she can go from looking beautiful and polished to looking haggard and ugly. She has such a command with her body that she creates many dimensions for Jasmine’s decaying wellbeing.

Jasmine’s delusional revival is summed up by the above quote. She’s met someone, therefore she is a new person. That may have been true when she was a young woman in college, and her future husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) swept her off her feet and transformed her into the elite and ostentatious woman she is today. However, to say that she’s met someone, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a rich and ambitious man, and declare that she’s a new person is irrational. She’s a carbon copy of herself, falling for a man who can sweep her off her feet and give her all the things she loves. Perhaps her downfall is that she is now a woman who loves things and not people.