Wednesday, January 28, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

Julianne Moore in "Still Alice."
Disease has almost become a movie genre of its own, creating showcases for good actors and for fading stars who use onscreen suffering to redeem reputation.  But the actual genre  requires the sort of disease that lets the human spirit rise above adversity and actors who catch us in the spiritual journey upward. 

But what if the illness has nothing but a downward intellectual spiral and no rescue for the mind of man? What if it actually destroys both logic and memory, the essential tools that actors need and that man uses to elevate himself above the Earth’s other species?
No wonder the topic of Alzheimer’s in books, plays and movies so seldom focuses on the victim but more on those coping.  No wonder it sounds depressing rather than mesmerizing to movie audiences.

It will be hard to reboot that thinking, but I would love to transport everyone in the nation to “Still Alice” and watch their emotions flow.  It stands as one of the master achievements in using acting creativity to impale our beings – not just with disease but with the human condition. 

It is far more than a touching portrayal of a perfectly normal family undone by the illness. That is almost a side reality that is happening with more than 5 million victims in the US and more than 200,000 under age 60.

“Still Alice” drills in on the victim. It would not be possible without this magnificently observant and rawly honest demonstration of screen acting from Julianne Moore. She studies a part with great fidelity, unfolds it without artificial flourish or fanfare, justifies each scene and nuance step by step and allows the spontaneity of her emotional immediacy to grab us by the throat.  The painful intimacy of watching is balanced by the power of the recognition she forces us to share.

Moore plays Alice, an American upper middle class whiz of domestic and work achievement – a renowned linguistics professor, a kitchen and organizational master, model for her three grown children, a wizard of computer word games, adored by her similarly bright and workaholic physician husband.

Until she starts dropping a train of thought here and there or loses track of time and place when jogging. 

Now all of us as we age – particularly those particularly reliant on mastery of language -- worry when we drop a word or misplace a key, which is normal. But something worse is happening to Alice and she senses it from classroom to kitchen. She is bright enough to realize a deeper problem and she turns to the most advanced doctors – a professionally compassionate neurosurgeon played with telling calm and sympathy by Stephen Kunken – to realize the worst.

This is early onset Alzheimer’s, in her case at the height of her career and attractiveness but more devastating because it is also the hereditary strain that will creep up on her children. 

When Alice bluntly tells her husband she wishes it were cancer, we are dumbstruck with agreement. People survive heart attacks and each hour brings new treatments for cancer.  But Alzheimer’s, in which the memory, mind and bodily functions diminish in odd fits at frightening speeds, is inexorable.  It is the ultimate fear -- that the common act of remembering events and people will remorselessly disappear while the vacant body is the last to go, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.  

Adaptive as well as bright, Alice clings to mental tricks and outguessing her watchers. She previews the antiseptic housing warehouses for the empty shell she is becoming.  She analyzes the medical data.  She speaks eloquently to others about what is happening, underlining her thoughts with yellow marker so she doesn’t mess up.  She even uses her computer skills to plant “eggs” and video messages to steer the crumbling Alice she knows is coming into how to kill herself. Her panic and efforts at self-control may seem plucky, but what is the use when soon you can’t remember where the bathroom is or which daughter you’re talking to.

Family fabric is built into every moment of decline. Kate Bosworth perfectly delineates in behavioral glimpses the older daughter, loving but prickly and combatively self-centered.  The younger daughter, Lydia, defensive about her independence, determined to make it as an actress without college, proves more emotionally attuned to her mother.  

The Lydia part, the major secondary role, calls out the best so far in the calculated brooding style of actress Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame.  But this is not consistently great work since Moore’s intensity in dialog – and her insight into how maternal authority survives even as the mind fades -- spurs Stewart to her best moments.

Playing off an explorative actress elevates everyone. In fact the film is unintentionally a crystal demonstration of the difference between competent and great.  Stewart reads from and performs in plays in moments that should leap off the page back into the heart of the story, but they stay on the page.  Moore rips those old arguments about euthanasia out of the textbooks and out of the pulpits into a frighteningly believable option that makes our hearts jump. 

Alec Baldwin reminds us that he can be a pinpoint actor in character exposure as Alice’s husband, disbelieving that this creature he adores for her mind and body is wasting away, caring and politically correct in his supportive role. But Baldwin lets us see glimpses of what Alice even in her growing remoteness and self-loathing senses. His work ethic is a more selfish mirror of her assumptions in the past and while he would never openly abandon her, he is pulling away – in a way most spouses would.

Moore deserves the attention but she has a well constructed and observational road map that is not getting sufficient praise. There is the thoughtful mind-opening best-selling book by neuroscientist Lisa Genova. And then Richard Glatzer (himself an ALS victim) and Wash Westmoreland, co-credited as director and screenwriter, have fashioned an intelligent plot with faithfulness to the material and skill with cinematic methods.  Where their input and Moore’s fidelity and acting instincts merge may be unclear from the outside but the merger is profound.

Despite the quality of the script, I can name on one hand the film actresses who could come anywhere close to the impact of Moore as Alice.  It’s not just how Alice lashes out at what is happening or accedes to what is happening or attempts self-control as she wastes away before our eyes until there is nothing left to control or learn from. It is all illuminatingly combined. 

It would be small compensation for how she guides our understanding and involvement to get every acting award in sight. It may have started. She has already been honored by her peers in the Screen Actors Guild.

Other notable end of year reviews: Into the Woods, Theory of Relativity, Whiplash, Wild,  Unbroken, Boyhood,  American Sniper, Birdman,  Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, a new look at American Sniper controversies  and Selma

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal,  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.