Friday, February 27, 2015

"Still Alice" and The Week in Reviews

[I review "Still Alice," the DVDs "Force Majeure," "A Walk Among the Tombstones" and "The Homesman."  The Book of the Week is "I'll Have What She's Having (a humorous look at celebrity diets) and I will bring you up-to-date on "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project:" "Kid With A Bike" and "The Young Girls of Rochefort"]

Still Alice

A 50-year-old woman discovers she has early onset Alzheimer's disease.

Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a well-respected linguistics professor at Columbia University.  She has a loving husband, John, who is a successful research scientist and three successful children...well, two successful, one struggling to be an actress in L.A., a source of frustration for both mother and daughter. Alice and her husband (Alec Baldwin) live in a lovely NYC townhouse and everything is going swimmingly until Alice starts experiencing memory loss.  After consulting with a neurologist, she is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease, a rare familial version that she likely inherited from her father.

Adapted from Lisa Genova's novel by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, we follow Alice from diagnosis to disbelief to horror that she has passed the gene to her daughter to acceptance and eventual loss of self to the disease. We also see how the family must accept this new Alice. The irony of her being a linguistics professor, someone who teaches about the effectiveness of words and language, should find herself unable to remember words herself, is not lost.  She does everything she can to try to hang onto her identity, but the disease is unstoppable and slowly robs Alice of her being, something particularly difficult for a highly intelligent and educated person. At one point, Alice tells her husband she wished she had cancer instead because there was less shame in that. 

Alec Baldwin plays Alice's husband in a restrained performance; Kate Bosworth is the oldest daughter who wants to have a baby; Kristen Stewart is the youngest daughter, Lydia, who frustrates Alice with her career choice but in the end is the one who steps up for her mother. Stewart's performance is surprisingly sensitive and poignant.

This is a sad tale of the Damocles Sword that is Alzheimer's and no matter how intelligent, how successful, how careful you are with your life, so far there does not appear to be anything we can do to stop it from robbing some of us of our lives.  Alice did everything right: she ate right, exercised, got lots of sleep and was not stressed out showing us that if this is your fate, there is nothing you can do to stop it.  

Rosy the Reviewer says...a harrowing journey into the world of early onset Alzheimer's disease made real by Julianne Moore's remarkable and well-deserved Oscar performance that brought me to tears.

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Force Majeure (2014)

A Swedish family on holiday in the Alps encounter an avalanche during lunch and the father runs to save himself instead of protecting his wife and children.

The film begins showing a lovely family on a ski vacation getting their picture taken on the slopes. We see them napping, brushing their teeth, eating.  The ordinariness is almost ominous. 

At lunch on an open terrace with a beautiful view of the mountains an avalanche occurs.  At first everyone thinks it is a controlled one, but when it becomes clear it's the real thing the father runs for it while the wife shields her children. When the mist clears and all is well, the father, Tomas (played by Johannes Kuhnke), returns as if nothing has happened.  But what has happened is an avalanche of unspoken emotion.

The wife (Ebba, played by Lisa Loven Kongsli) is upset but says nothing.  Tomas senses her displeasure but also says nothing and the children are upset and rejecting.  Finally one night when they are relaxing with some friends, Ebba reveals what happened and that Tomas ran away. The relationship is cracking.

Tomas can't own up to the fact that he ran.  He tries to tell himself and Ebba that there are just different ways of viewing what happened.  When Ebba gets his phone and shows the incident to not only him but to his friends he is humiliated. Tomas finally breaks down. On the last day of the vacation, it's a blustery day and they all go skiing.  Tomas loses sight of Ebba and goes to look for her. He rescues her thus redeeming himself...or did he?  The question:  Did she do this on purpose to allow him to redeem himself, was it an accident or was it a test?

The avalanche symbolizes the force of nature, the events following Tomas' act of cowardice, the cracking of a marriage but also the force of nature that wills us to save ourselves. Who can judge how anyone will act when faced with a possible act of God?

Force Majeure can be defined as an act of God but also irresistible compulsion or great force.  It's also a common clause in contracts that essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties such as an act of God prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract.

Reminiscent of another film, "The Loneliest Planet," where Gael Garcia Bernal likewise showed cowardice in front of his girlfriend, this film asks the questions: can the contract of marriage be the same when selfishness and cowardice are revealed?  Is cowardice the ultimate betrayal? Who are we really?  

Written and directed by Ruben Ostland, the scenery is gorgeous and he uses it effectively, especially between scenes as the snow machines tend to the mountain at night to the sound of Vivaldi

Big question:  Why was this film not nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film?

Rosy the Reviewer says...a mesmerizing exploration of marriage, gender roles and how we react when confronted with a "force majeure."
(In Swedish with English subtitles)

Matthew Scudder (Liam Neesom), a failed cop, has become a private detective and is hired by a drug kingpin to find out who murdered his wife.
In 1991 in a NYC bar, Scudder is having a couple of shots even though he is a cop and on duty.  During a shakedown of the bar, Scudder chases and kills two of the guys and wounds another.  Turns out he also inadvertently killed a bystander, a little girl, so he quits his job in shame.
Flash forward to 1999, in the shadow of Y2K.  He is no longer a cop, he is in AA and a private eye.
Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame (and who us fans breathlessly remember as Matthew Crawley), is Kenny Kristo, sporting black hair and seemingly doing everything he can to disassociate himself from Matthew Crawley, yet another sleazy bad guy (see "The Guest"), this time a drug kingpin.  His wife had been kidnapped and despite the fact that he paid the bad guys the ransom, they killed his wife anyway. They not only killed her, they cut her up and put her body parts in little packages and returned her to him in the trunk of her car. They also left him a tape of her being tortured before her murder. These are not nice guys and Kenny wants revenge.  Turns out these guys are more into kidnapping women and cutting them up than collecting the ransoms.
Scudder also befriends a homeless kid, TJ (Astro), and he becomes Scudder's de facto partner, which is kind of a fun pairing.  Neesom does a good job as his usual badass character that he has perfected in the "Taken" films (and also exudes his big tall handsomeness, if I might say).
Based on a novel by Lawrence Block and written and directed by Scott Frank, this is not a pleasant story nor is the script very tight and it took an hour for anything much to happen.  But it's not a bad film.  Just a very unpleasant one.
Rosy the Reviewer says...a tortuous film - for the women characters and the viewer and I will never think of piano wire the same way again.
The Homesman (2014)
Independent pioneer woman Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers to transport three women driven mad by pioneer life back to civilization with the aid of ne'er do well George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones).

Tommy Lee Jones wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver (adapted from the novel by Glendon Swarthout) and directed this tale of the very plain but earnest, hard-working and self-sufficient Mary Bee Cuddy, who lives alone in the Nebraska territory, working her farm in an unforgiving landscape.  She has saved some money and despite being alone, is doing just fine except she wants a husband. She asks Bob, a local man with a farm adjacent to hers, to marry her so they can team up together but he declines saying, "I ain't perfect but you are too bossy and too damn plain." He plans to go back East to find himself a wife.

In the meantime, the local women are not doing as well as Mary.  In fact, three of them have gone bonkers so it's decided that they need to be returned to civilization.  Since no one else steps up, Mary takes it upon herself to take the women, broken by the hard life on the plains, back to Iowa. She runs into George who has tried to take over Bob's farm while Bob is back East looking for a wife and the locals brand him a claimjumper and leave him on a horse with a noose around his neck.  Mary saves him but not until he promises to accompany her to Iowa with the three women.

Now right away, I'm thinking.  What's in the drinking water?  This is a very small farming community.  Three of the women go crazy?  Kind of far-fetched.  And the ending just doesn't make sense, considering Mary's strength of character.  I guess the message here is loneliness kills.

The teaming up of Swank and Jones reminded me of Bogart and Hepburn in "The African Queen," except on the prairie in a wagon instead of in the jungle on a boat and it had its moments, though Jones has done crazy, grizzled old coots before.

The production values and cinematography (Rodrigo Prieto, who also did "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Argo") are first rate and Jones does a nice job directing his second film. John Lithgow, James Spader and Meryl Streep (Streep, probably because her daughter, Grace Gummer, plays one of the crazy women) even make appearances.  But that's not enough to save this film for me.

I'm not a fan of westerns, especially really grim ones and not a fan of Swank, though I give her props for her acting skills, so the deck was stacked against my liking this film from the start.  Add to it the fact that it's interminably long and interminably grim (babies being thrown down the hole in an outhouse, children buried underground, a man raping his wife with her mother lying next to her in bed).  I can imagine prairie life in the 1800's wasn't easy, but I didn't need to see that.

Rosy the Reviewer says...if you like movies about the hardscrabble pioneer life, you might like this (keeping in mind it's no "Little House on the Prairie").  I found it dreary and grim.

***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***
275 to go!
Have YOU seen these?
A young boy is abandoned by his father and left to live in a state run youth home until a chance encounter with a stranger leads to her fostering him on weekends.

Eleven-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) is obsessed with finding his father and can't believe his father has sold his bike and moved away.  He meets a woman, Samantha (Cecile de France), at a medical clinic and she takes an interest in him, even finding who bought his bike and buying it back for him.  She also invites him to stay with her on weekends.

They find his father and the father rejects him, so Cyril hooks up with a local thug, transferring his need for approval to him, even going so far as to rob a local newsstand agent to please him.

Why it's a Must See:  [Directed by the Dardenne Brothers], "taking simple, potentially melodramatic scenarios, they have crafted another magical, fleet-footed film that will linger with audiences in ways belying its leanness."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

Rosy the Reviewer says...a charming, poignant film made all  the more charming and poignant by the young actor, Thomas Doret.  You won't be able to resist him.
(In French with English subtitles)

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) a dance teacher, and Solange (Francoise Dorleac), a piano teacher, are twins and dying to get out of Rochefort and to Paris.  Little do they know that the loves of their lives are right there in Rochefort. 
This is a joyful film, reminiscent of that early part of the sixties when we had not yet been scarred by the Vietnam War and when "Beach Blanket Bingo" movies were a destination.  Starring Catherine Deneuve, her sister Francoise Dorleac (who died tragically and too young), Gene Kelly, George Chakiris and Danielle Darrieux with music by Michel Legrand, how can you go wrong?
The colors are gorgeous.  It's a silly fairy tale fantasy with everyone dancing in the streets and singing, singing, singing - and it's very French and very 1960's.
Why it's a Must See:  "Everything in this movie connotes happiness, buoyancy, and a joie de vivre that is unmatched in cinema...Put simply, Young Girls will make you happier than almost any other film you can imagine. And this is no small achievement."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

"It is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful films of all time."
---San Francisco Chronicle, September 18, 1998
If you ever wondered what happened to George Chakiris after he won his Oscar for "West Side Story," well, I guess he went to France.
Rosy the Reviewer says...if you are not a fan of musicals, you will hate this film.  But if you loved "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,"  this one has  the same look and feel, except happier, because it's from the same director (Jacques Demy).  This one is exuberant and will make you smile.
(In French with English subtitles)

***Book of the Week***

I'll Have What She's Having: My Adventures in Celebrity Dieting by Rebecca Harrington (2015)

Author Harrington samples celebrity diets and discovers not only insights into the lives of some celebrity icons but of herself as well.

Harrington read the diet and lifestyle books of several celebrities in their pursuit of the ideal and tried each diet for a week.  Gwyneth Paltrow shuns dairy, gluten, eggs, red meat, deep water fish and eggplant (what's wrong with eggplant?)  Liz Taylor mixed sour cream into cottage cheese and put peanut butter on steak.  Karl Lagerfeld drank 10 diet cokes a day and Marilyn Monroe mixed raw eggs into warm milk.  Cameron Diaz likes savory oatmeal, Madonna is strictly macrobiotic, Garbo espoused the "wonder foods" from Gaylord Hauser's book "Look Younger, Live Longer (wheat germ, brewer's yeast and molasses)" and Victoria Beckham uses the "Five Handfuls Diet" as in only five handfuls (what will fit in your palm) of protein per day.  Now we know why she never smiles!

Harrington tried them all asking herself the questions:

  • Would she have any friends at the end of her diet journey? (No)
  • Was she going to permanently change her body? (No, she weighs exactly the same)
  • Which celebrity would she like best? (Liz, Karl and Gwyneth)
  • Which celebrity would she like the least? (Garbo)
  • What would she learn about dieting? (She's not sure)

But what she really learned was how hard it is to be an "ideal" woman at any time in history and that the lives of celebrities are actually pretty horrible.  You can also get a "tremendous understanding and an odd compassion for someone when you eat like them."

Rosy the Reviewer says...a hilarious romp that dieters and celebrity watchers alike will love.

Thanks for Reading!

That's it for this week.

See you Tuesday for
"How to Care for a Sick Loved One: Do's and Don'ts"


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Find the page for the movie, click on "Explore More" on the right side panel and then scroll down to "External Reviews."  Look for "Rosy the Reviewer" on the list. Or if you are using a mobile device, look for "Critics Reviews." Click on that and you will find me alphabetically under "Rosy the Reviewer."



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