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Movie Reviews

Still Alice (Review 2)

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MV5BMjIzNzAxNjY1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDg4ODQxMzE@._V1__SX1217_SY603_Released: 2015

Director: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Alec Baldwin, Erin Drake, Hunter Parrish, Julianne Moore, Kate Bosworth,Kristen Stewart, Seth Gillliam, Shane McRae, Stephen Kunken, Victoria Cartagena

Certificate: 12A

Honest to a fault, Still Alice feels as heartbreaking as you might expect any traumatic event in your own personal life to affect you. The story is basic, the people are familiar and the storytelling is uncomplicated. In some fashion you might peg the film as something of a Lifetime story in pedigreed actors clothing, but it is only because Alzheimer’s has become such a hackneyed topic at this point. This is unfortunate as the disease is of course a very serious one as well as being close to soul-crushing for those who bear witness to their loved ones slowly drifting away from the person they once were. Thankfully, I’ve never had to deal with the disease in any form with any family members, but as it’s been used in films before it is easy to see why storytellers not only position it to gain large amounts of sympathy for their characters, but depend on it to pull in the entire emotional investment of their film. When used correctly though, stories concerning Alzheimer’s can not only be affecting and moving, but likeStill Alice, they can be eye-opening. There are moments within the film that naturally ring familiar and tread the line of being somewhat overly-sentimental and manipulative but this is only due to the timing and use of lyrical songs as well as the inclusion of a big speech to clarify the emotional peak of our protagonist. These moments are few and far between the more personal, small highlights of what it’s like to exist outside these moments though. This introspective look is what sets the film apart from something you might see on late night cable along with, of course, the lead performance of Julianne Moore that won her an Academy Award this year.Still Alice is not a film that screams innovation and isn’t even anything to necessarily write home about, but it does take you in completely as you give yourself over to its briskly paced hour and forty minute run time. Concerning itself with the basics of life and the unforgiving nature of the disease at the heart of its story Still Alice provides a no frills look at both deterioration and inadequacy in the human spirit that cannot be controlled and is all the more poignant for it.

Moore plays Alice Howland, a happily married woman settling into the second half of her life as the film opens on her fiftieth birthday celebration. She has three grown children, Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart). Alice is happily married to John (Alec Baldwin) and a renowned linguistics professor at Columbia along with John, a doctor at the university. While Alice certainly seems to have it all she has seemingly worked hard for this picturesque life and has been rewarded by the majority of her children who have gone on to become doctors and lawyers. Anna, the oldest, is the lawyer and is trying to get pregnant with husband Charlie (Shane McRae). Tom is finishing up med school while going through a bevy of girlfriends none of which he can seem to settle on while Lydia is the dark horse having left the families New York City safe haven and ventured out to Los Angeles to become an actor. As a woman steeped in academia who prides herself on her accomplishments it is hard for Alice to accept her daughters uncertain and inauspicious career path. All of these relationships and the dynamic of keeping up with the ever moving lives of her family only help to build to the moment Alice receives her devastating diagnosis. It begins with the small things such as forgetting certain words, escalating into becoming lost when going on jogs around a campus she has known for the better part of her adult life and only getting worse from there. In visiting a neurologist Alice learns she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. One could take the film from here as Alice and her family finding a way to work through this unexpected trial and how the ties that bind are tested under such stress and tragedy, but moreso the film is about learning to cope and if there is any, the best way to do so while still maintaining some kind of normality. The way in which directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland handle the transitions of the family from helpful hopefuls to slightly more jaded pessimists is nearly flawless and only serves to make the story all the more recognizable.

Glatzer and Westmoreland, while not having anything of note that might serve as a reliable precursor to this film, are more than adept at understanding it is best to let the actors breathe and not distract us with anything else. This is a pure human story and so why go any other route than approaching the characters with anything other than a focused style? In doing this and allowing Moore to exude her incredible talent through this woman we get more than just a simple look at pain, but more we understand the psyche of someone losing the understanding of their own tragedy. It is noted many times throughout Still Alice that memories are our most precious possessions and so how are we to see this loss of all that we hold dear as anything but harrowing? Through Alice, Moore presents a study of struggle. It is in her looks that we find the most agonizing of moments. Some of the looks are that of realization, others are that of confusion and when you land somewhere in the middle they are simply that of being scared. It is a real gamut of emotions that Moore must run in order to keep the worsening effects of her disease both in check and in line with a natural progression without ever making it all seem as melodramatic as it could easily resort to. That would be the easy way out, for both Moore and her directors in broadly appealing to the mass emotions of those in the audience while showing the heightened moments of sorrow in exaggerated fashion, but Moore is too tempered an actor to allow that to happen. This allows Alice to take on the disease as if it were a challenge rather than a fight already lost. Alice takes to testing herself daily, to putting questions in her phone that she forces herself to answer while being unafraid to use her illness to appeal to Lydia and her desire for her to go to college. As much as the relationship between Alice and John is understood for what it should be (a loving, solid marriage) the film focuses more on the children and their individual dealings, especially Lydia, opening up the second half of the film to something more than just an internal struggle, but a sense of appreciation from her children both in reflection and more importantly in the present moment.

If Still Alice wants to remind us of anything though it is how fast life seems to pass. There is a moment a few months after receiving her diagnosis where Alice and John have escaped to a beach house for the summer. It is clearly a place they visited often when they were younger and therefore holds many a fond memories for them. They talk of the times they had, John keenly touches on the loss of Alice’s mother and only sibling in a car accident when she was young by referencing how he wishes he could have met them. The couple then sit back to take in all that they’ve accomplished in their lives and how it all has come to something of an unceremonious end. It is one of the small moments of perspective, of reflection where you can tell the characters are present rather than simply being in a place for the sake of feeling obligated. This isn’t a wedding, a party, a charity event or even one of Lydia’s plays where fun and spontaneity is the expected convention, but rather it is natural, improvisational and more than anything it is honest. It is in these moments that the film thrives, that we as viewers see ourselves in these characters no matter if we ever share their circumstances. That Moore and her supporting cast are able to transcend the material in such a way that we can relate in this fashion and then be able to pull back to the overall point of the narrative to sledgehammer our emotions home give this simple film an unexpected amount of weight. The relentlessness of Moore’s character is so tangible, so intense that it is clearly what will resonate for days after walking away from the film. These kinds of aforementioned moments are all we have and at the rate in which our lives disperse it is vital not just that we recognize this truth, but that we stop to invest and find value in these moments when they are unexpectedly presented to us. I always find a discussion about time and perspective one that can be heartfelt while being completely logical and understated which is the kind of mature conversation Still Alice brings to the table.

Movie Reviews

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: David Yates

Starring: Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Also Eddie Redmayne.

Reviewed By: Van Connor

The magic’s well and truly faded with this second instalment of the erstwhile Harry Potter prequel series, as The Crimes of Grindelwald shifts the action to Paris, but its own sensibilities entirely too far into the franchise world-building spectrum that could threaten to unravel it. It never does quite unfurl from the exhaustion of it, that would, after all, suggest there were anything of note at its core. There isn’t. The Crimes of Grindelwald is precisely the patronising box-office-centric cash-grab any decent cynic’s always accused the Harry Potter series of being under the surface; all that’s changed is that, this time, they really can’t be bothered to attempt to mask it beneath any kind of fun.

One of those sequels you can rather obviously tell was never meant to exist, this very-much-a-part-two kicks off unceremoniously (it has no other setting, as you’ll discover over the course of a mind-numbing two and a quarter hours) by setting about undoing literally every closing plot mechanic of what’s come before. Did a character end up in Point A last time? Well, this time they’re going to be reintroduced via what’s either an interesting and poorly lit set-piece or clunky exposition in order to set themselves up at Point B instead, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to do so. Only then may the plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald begin. And plot it has. Lots of plot. Tons and tons of plot. In fact, it has very little else but plot. So, it’s somewhat mystifying that David Yates’ sixth venture into what’s evidently now branded as the Wizarding World should ultimately amount to so little.

From what little you’re able to glean of the plot, proceedings involve the immediate escape of evil wizard Gerrett Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) from the prison to where he was sent last time. On the loose once more, Grindelwald sets about exacting his master plan to ensure magical dominance over the human race, a plan that involves the formation of a dark wizarding army and the utilisation of one Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller), with the latter’s death evidently no obstacle for the likes of his contract’s sequel options. The only wizard capable of stopping Grindelwald, we’re told, is that rebellious master wizard Albus Dumbledore (now played in a younger form by Jude Law), but Dumbledore can’t, you see, because… reasons, and despatches a reluctant Newt Scamander to do so in his stead. Because, again, reasons.

Now, you can be forgiven for taking that plot in and wondering just how in the hell Eddie Redmayne’s Newt need in any way be present for any of this, and, frankly, you’d be right to do so. Certainly, Eddie Redmayne appears to be wondering the same – his contingent of the cast (essentially the main four from the last movie) each make what can charitably be described as diminishing returns, offering more outright effort in their performances to a film that really can’t be bothered to do much with them. They’re not important, you see, Dumbledore is. Grindelwald is. And creator/screenwriter/living cash hoover J.K. Rowling genuinely cannot be bothered to pretend otherwise. That movie snotty naysayers claim they always somehow see whenever there’s a new superhero movie out? The one that’s nothing but nonsense, world-building and a half-hourly set-piece? That movie actually does exist. And its title is The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Losing the magic of even its own musical arrangement, The Crimes of Grindelwald is an outright disaster not just of a seasonal tentpole release, but of a franchise picture full stop. Its script works exhaustingly to tie itself in knots to go essentially nowhere, its culmination consisting of literally nothing more than two pieces of unceremonious lore being shouted about in canon, each essentially lionised by Rowling so that at least one of them can no longer be called out as the laziest, most cynical, and ethically bankrupt product of the entire franchise. She fails in this endeavour, as, indeed, does Yates in delivering a dreary and uninvolving film to which his cast aspire to inject life, only to reanimate the narratively dead instead.

Legions of Potterites will doubtless flock to the nearest multiplex the moment the doors open, and, to be fair, that is absolutely the power the brand has and ours is not to question. If the priority of this series, though, genuinely is the continued pumping of revenue into the Rowling estate landscaping fund, would it really be too much to ask to even attempt to make it a good time? Can we not at least get some enjoyment out of this? A big ask, I know. But it’d behove Rowling, Yates, and everybody involved in this shill of a series to at least consider we might want some excitement next time around. Maybe when the second act stops dead for ten minutes to give us a canon origin story for the damned sorting hat.

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Featured Review

Hell Fest ★★★

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: Gregory Plotkin

Starring: Amy Forsyth, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards

Reviewed By: Van Connor

In the pantheon of cinema, the slasher movie sits alongside only really Die Hard and the western as being unfathomably easy to retrofit for any occasion with “…but with this unique location instead!” Hell Fest is a textbook case of this. It has no ambition beyond merely being a slasher movie set within a specific gimmick-driven environment, no desire to offer up anything more than stock Hollywood teens being violently murdered one at a time, and is under no illusion about whether or not you’ve ever seen this movie before or even care. What it is concerned with, though, is fun. And it has that in spades.

It’s literally nothing more than “the slasher movie at an adult horror theme park”. A concept, it turns out, that you can make a fair amount of mischief with, as our group of six abhorrently gorgeous twenty-eight year-old teenagers find themselves fixated upon by a sinister figure in a wooden mask and brandishing a kitchen knife. This being the eponymous theme park, naturally there are a multitude of places for our teens to hide, but, as is par for the course in Hell Fest, where you hide could just as easily be the very means by which our masked murderer will gut you. Fun!

Though none of the cast leap out as being particularly noteworthy (Arrow’s Bex Taylor-Klaus and MacGyver’s Reign Edwards are arguably the biggest geek pulls here), each serviceably handles their limited place within the story. Amy Forsyth’s a perfectly fine Final Girl, not memorable, but likeable enough, and the rest of the cast conduct themselves to more or less the same standard. Blumhouse alum Gregory Plotkin shifts to the big chair for this one, proving he’s got pretty lively chops for a good ol’ down n’ dirty slasher flick, and Seth Sherwood and Blair Butler’s script knows just how to play with the mechanics of the formula that everyone involved can unashamedly enjoy themselves without the overwhelming need to reinvent the genre wheel.

By virtue of being set within a merchandised horror world, Hell Fest has great fun in exploiting that set up for some wonderfully cheap scares, making for an enjoyable and OTT bloody night at the pictures that will never challenge, but certainly entertain. There’s no mythology to this, no franchise being built before us, and there’s even a genre icon making an almost obligatory appearance to sanctify it all. Sure, you won’t lose your head with Hell Fest, but you will whoop and cheer. It’s just a shame it had to arrive three weeks after Halloween.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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