Reviews of our coming features
On this page:
Reviewed by Stephen Rea in The Philadelphia Inquirer
Alice Howland, the Columbia University linguistics professor played by Julianne Moore in Still Alice, is on her daily run, jogging the Upper West Side, a familiar route and routine.
In the middle of the campus where she has long been teaching, she stops for a minute, a lost look in her eyes. Suddenly, scarily, nothing seems familiar. Lightheadedness? Stress? The flu coming on?
Or is this a sign of something more serious, devastating?
Unfolding in incremental passages, and shot through with piercing detail, Still Alice is the sad, beautifully realized story of a victim of early-onset Alzheimer's and how the disease that works like an eraser across a vast canvas of memory - progressively wiping it clean - changes a life and the lives of the loved ones and colleagues around her.
Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, adapted from the 2007 novel by Lisa Genova, Still Alice offers a clear-eyed view of a woman who prides herself on her love of language, her ability to communicate, to embrace big ideas. Alice is married to John (Alec Baldwin), a research physician, busy with his own career, but their relationship is attentive, loving, and their three grown children are a source of pride. Pride, and a bit of worry: Kristen Stewart, who shares the film's closing scene with Moore - a crushingly intimate moment that speaks to the overarching power of love - is Lydia, an aspiring actress who lives in Los Angeles and whose lack of a college degree gives her mother no little concern. Kate Bosworth (her Anna is married, trying to have a baby) and Hunter Parrish are the other siblings.
Still Alice charts its title character's steady decline from the neurologist's chilling diagnosis onward, but the great strength of the film is that it never resorts to cheap sentimentality. The facts themselves are hard enough, crushing enough. And the ways in which Alice strives to hang on - memory exercises, dictating into her smartphone, notes on the wall - bring us into her world. Her desperation is evident, but so is her determination.
Moore is simply extraordinary. The actress knows this woman inside and out, and so when Alice's very identity begins to erode, Moore is right there, equally and deeply adrift (but, of course, in full control). In a movie full of moving, challenging moments, of accumulative emotional blows, one scene stands out: when Alice, well into the wasteland of her disease, speaks before an Alzheimer's support group, reading from a speech she has struggled to write, sharing her experiences, her challenges, with candor and, yes, humor.
There have been other powerful films on the subject - indeed, 2006's Away From Her, about a wife with Alzheimer's in a long, close marriage, brought its star, Julie Christie, an Academy Award nomination. Moore is nominated this year, and whether she wins or not, her performance deserves attention. It is one of this very fine actress' defining roles. And it resonates with humanity and heartbreak.
Reviewed by Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post
Timothy Spall grunts, groans, spits and sputters his way through “Mr. Turner,” a portrait of the 19th-century British artist J.M.W. Turner that is as suffused with watery light, ethereal feeling and striving for the sublime as one of its subject’s paintings.
Structured by Mike Leigh as a series of vignettes, “Mr. Turner” isn’t comprehensive, and yet it feels all of a piece (the film roughly covers 1825 to 1851, the year Turner died). Refracted through Spall’s beetle-browed, tightly coiled characterization, most of the formative events in Turner’s life are revisited by way of fleeting memories or gruff, dismissive asides. We learn, in no particular order, that his father was a barber and his mother wound up in an asylum; he took up with a mistress and fathered two children, then lived with a woman in a seaside village in Kent, ending his days with her in Chelsea; one of the most famous members of the Royal Academy of Arts, he was nonetheless reviled by Queen Victoria as his style of painting inched closer to abstraction; and he was once offered the princely sum of 100,000 pounds for the entirety of his collection but turned the offer down, preferring to bequeath his work to the British nation — a wish fulfilled by the eventual housing of 20,000 of his paintings and other works at Tate Britain in London.
Some of these episodes are reenacted in “Mr. Turner,” some only glanced at. But by the end of the film, viewers will feel not only that they have seen the world much as Turner may have seen it, but also lived in it with him, in all his contradictory isolation and fellowship, generosity and peevishness, high-minded reflection and grubbier pursuits. Most fascinatingly, it presents Turner as a man taken with and profoundly changed by the technological advances of his era, when the wooden ships he became famous for painting gave way to the steam and steel of the industrial age.
That seems very far away when “Mr. Turner” opens with a bucolic scene on the Belgian coast, where a solitary Turner — scowling and staring, long and hard — sketches while bonneted Flemish countrywomen walk by. Back in London, he’s greeted by his housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), and his ruddily cheerful father, William (Paul Jesson), both of whom are devoted to managing the Turner atelier while the great man wrestles with his canvases unseen. (But not unseeing: Turner has installed a peep-hole so he can watch prospective customers as they browse his work in a room reserved as a gallery.) A shrewd showman, Turner père first leads visitors to a candlelit anteroom, to enhance the drama and visual effect when the doors open upon shimmering, pellucid seascapes that invariably draw gasps of wonder.
As a work of art in its own right, “Mr. Turner” inspires its own astonishments: Leigh’s longtime cinematographer, Dick Pope, has outdone himself on a film whose framing, composition and careful lighting — often through a scrim of dust or sea spray — evoke not just Turner’s paintings, but also a time when achieving “the correct effect” was the point of everything from architecture to gardening. Although Turner’s work exemplified those elevated ideals, the man himself isn’t given to flowery philosophical speeches in “Mr. Turner.” Those are reserved for the young critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), here depicted as a fatuous, if earnest, defender of art as civilizing force, moral vector and spiritual balm.
“Mr. Turner” faithfully advances these values, but its aesthetic rewards never outstrip the realism for which Leigh (“Secrets and Lies,” “Another Year”) is most famous: Turner’s transcendent enterprise is continually juxtaposed with earthier concerns, from the social ills of poverty and the lingering shame of the slave trade to the painful skin condition suffered by Hannah that worsens as time goes on.
Equally unsavory are Turner’s relations with women, from his former paramour Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), whose two daughters he refuses to claim as his own, to Hannah herself (she’s expected to make herself available to him for furtive assignations as is his whim). Far warmer is his relationship with a landlady, Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), a cheerful boon companion with whom he lives a secret, but altogether homey, parallel life.
One of the most storied episodes of Turner’s life — when he had himself lashed to the mast of a ship in a snowstorm — is re-created with ambitious bravura in “Mr. Turner,” as is an amusing sequence involving his rivalry with fellow Academy member John Constable. Through it all, Spall is equally enigmatic and transfixing: With his guttural croaks and barks, his Turner is often difficult to understand, but, thanks to Spall’s amazing physical performance and Leigh’s sensitive, information-laden direction, he’s never incomprehensible. Despite his own failings and faults, Leigh and Spall’s Turner is a man consumed by the search for truth and beauty, even in the midst of the less than pretty truths of his times.