Still Alice-2014

Still Alice-2014

Director-Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

Starring-Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin

Scott’s Review #224


Reviewed February 26, 2015

Grade: B+

Still Alice tells the story of a highly educated college professor who, at the young age of 50, is afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She wrestles with, not only the gloomy diagnosis but also the emotional effects of the disease and what effects they will have on her husband and three grown children.

Also explored are the hereditary aspects of the illness and the effects on the offspring of the inflicted person.

In a nutshell, the film has a calm demeanor but is heartbreaking and a bit of a downer.

Alice Howland has always achieved success- she is a linguistics professor at the esteemed Columbia University in Manhattan and has a seemingly idyllic life. She lives an affluent lifestyle and has three grown, well-adjusted children.

Alec Baldwin plays John Howland and Kristen Stewart plays the most predominantly featured daughter, Lydia.

These points of perfection make the story and her gradual decline all the more tragic to watch. We root for Alice because she is an ideal character- kind, loving, the perfect mother and wife. How could a thing like this happen to her? When she goes for a jog near her campus and suddenly does not recognize her surroundings or where she is, the audience shares in Alice’s confusion.

The primary reason to watch the film is for the astounding performance that Julianne Moore gives, as Alice. The film borders on a very good Lifetime television movie, albeit, much better than that and arguably in the same vein, but the acting sets this one above the mediocre and that is largely due to Moore- with a lesser actress I ponder how the film would have succeeded.

The tender scenes are wonderful- when Alice wets her pants, the audience also feels her humiliation. When she breaks down in fear and anxiety we do the same with her.

The supporting cast also deserves praise- specifically Baldwin and Stewart. While not entirely fleshed out characters, their lending of support to their wife and mother respectively makes the characters themselves sympathetic and likable. An important scene in an ice-cream parlor late in the film when John asks Alice if she “really wants to be here” is misunderstood by Alice making the importance of what he is asking even more profound.

A scene where a coherent Alice, early in her diagnosis, leaves instructions for herself via video, to be seen when she is further along in her illness, is suspenseful and left me rooting for the result to be one way, which could be interpreted as drastic, and left me conflicted- a scene masterfully done.

My only criticism of the film is that despite the subject matter of Alzheimer’s disease which is devastating and life-altering not only for the victim but for the family, the film has a safe feel to it.

I would have liked to have seen some darker, grittier moments throughout the film to make it even more effective.

Certainly not a happily ever after story, bleaker moments might have prevailed. For sure a story centered on Moore, it also might have been interesting to further explore more of the effects the family have and will go through, especially Baldwin’s John. His character and Lydia could have been explored deeper instead of merely supporting and comforting Alice.

Still Alice is worth seeing if only for the performance of Julianne Moore- a talented actress doing a brilliant job in the title role.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Julianne Moore (won)

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Female Lead-Julianne Moore (won)

American Sniper-2014

American Sniper-2014

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

Scott’s Review #223


Reviewed February 22, 2015

Grade: A-

American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, is a war film that is told from the viewpoint of the soldier- or in this case a sniper.

A character study if you will.

Starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, deemed the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history, he has 255 kills to his name. The film begins pre-9/11 as Kyle views coverage from the 1998 U.S. Embassy attacks and enlists in a grueling training program to become a Navy Seal sniper.

Flashbacks reveal Kyle as a child being taught to hunt deer and shoot a rifle by his demanding father. He is eventually sent to Iraq following the 9/11 terror attacks and the film continues to showcase Kyle’s military career and multiple tours of duty ending years later. His loyal wife Taya is played by Sienna Miller.

I am personally not sure the bevy of controversy that American Sniper has stirred is entirely warranted- I looked at the film simply as a very good mainstream, action movie. Yes, it does have the overdone Americana machismo and Texas swagger, but it is an Eastwood film! This masculinity is at the heart of many of his films.

I do not view the film as politically charged.

The film leans neither Republican nor Democratic and seems to take a middle-of-the-road viewpoint.

It is a tale of a war hero, but it questions the wars fought and the casualties involved both American and otherwise. Sure, Kyle is a good ole, red-blooded American, but as he and Taya watch the 9/11 attacks on television, they are watching CNN, not Fox News. His close military buddy asks “why are we here?” referring to Afghanistan- there is a clear inference by Eastwood to question what this is all about.

I hope audiences keep this in mind.

One concern I do face as I ponder the film is whether American Sniper will send some audience members back to a time when the world was fearful of Muslims and at risk by the recent ISIS terror situations, I hope that people are smart enough to realize that NOT all Muslims are terrorists- it is only a minuscule portion that is evilly inspired.

Certainly, the major terrorist in American Sniper, known simply as The Butcher, is despicable, but plenty of other Muslims are innocent and victims of The Butcher’s brutality.

I love how the film has depth to it- Cooper is resilient as the troubled sniper. He is portrayed as human- a nice, all-American guy. He wrestles with the choice of shooting a woman and a young boy died at the risk of them carrying a bomb and killing members of his squad- he does not want to kill them, but rather is excellent at his job.

He is a perfect shot.

In the heat of the moment, under extreme pressure, he must ask himself, “should I pull the trigger and end their lives”? “what if they are innocent pedestrians?”. He becomes, in a sense, addicted to his duty of going overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan and justifies his service as “protecting Americans”.

This leads to his personal life being affected as Taya becomes frustrated with his frequent tours of duty, which he readily chooses to do. He suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress disorder but refuses to acknowledge this fact. He almost kills the family dog in a fit of uncontrolled rage; he temporarily confuses sounds from an auto shop as military warfare.

My admiration for the acting ability of Bradley Cooper increases with each role I see him in he is a marvel. From recent dynamic performances in American Hustle and The Place Beyond the Pines to this role, I am convinced he can play any part successfully and convincingly.

He has sure come a long way from The Hangover films.

American Sniper is an enormously creative and commercial success and deserves to be. Layered, character-driven, it is worlds above the typical male-driven action film.

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor-Bradley Cooper, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Editing (won), Best Sound Mixing, Best Film Editing

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia-1974

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia-1974

Director-Sam Peckinpah

Starring-Warren Oates

Scott’s Review #222


Reviewed February 20, 2015

Grade: B+

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a Mexican, cult-action film from 1974, directed by Sam Peckinpah, that clearly influenced famed modern movie director Quentin Tarantino in multiple ways. The film itself is violent, bloody, and traditionally Peckinpah in tone and look, similar to his other films (Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch).

The premise of the film is intriguing- a powerful man is known simply as “The Boss”, turns furious and places a bounty on the head of the man who impregnated his daughter, whom he, by the way, tortures to garner this information out of. He offers the enormous sum of 1 million dollars to the person who can “bring him the head of Alfredo Garcia”.

From this point, the action centers mostly on Bennie, a retired military officer who is intrigued by the bounty up for grabs. Bennie, along with his prostitute girlfriend, Elita, traverses the lands of Mexico in search of Alfredo Garcia, whether he already be dead or still alive, which is a mysterious and fun element of the film.

I have a tough time taking the film too seriously as much as I enjoyed it- it seems an action farce and, without giving too much away, the scenes involving the carrying of a severed head, arguably the lead character, are as much comical as ghastly. The illustrious lighting is a major focal point, especially during the outdoor scenes and specifically the nighttime desert scenes when Elita is almost raped by two bikers. The moonlight radiates onscreen.

The character of Elita is a fascinating one for me. On the one hand, she is an aging prostitute madly in love with Bennie and intrigued by a life with him living off their spoils. However, she almost enjoys the sexual experience with one of the bikers, played wonderfully by Kris Kristofferson, despite being roughed up by him.

In fact, the scene, while certainly violent, is in a way, almost tender as the biker and Elita realize their attraction for one another. It’s a surreal scene and has almost a sense of clarity for both characters. Are they in lust? Peckinpah women are traditionally not treated well, but Elita borders on the exception.

The Tarantino influence is undeniable- the mixture of humor amid violence- a severed head being treated as a comical prop, is immeasurable in its comparison to later Tarantino films such as the Kill Bill chapters.

Daring and pure genius, the film contains a dark tone but does not take itself too seriously by going for any sort of melodrama or being overwrought. It is only a film and has fun with that fact. It tries to be nothing more and embraces being bizarre. Tarantino films are like Peckinpah films just made 20-30 years apart.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia has evolved into a cult classic after having flopped commercially and critically in 1974. How wonderful when a gem is rediscovered and laden with influence, in this case as much stylistically as otherwise.

The One I Love-2014

The One I Love-2014

Director-Charlie McDowell

Starring-Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss

Scott’s Review #221


Reviewed February 18, 2015

Grade: C+

Reminiscent of a modern-day Twilight Zone episode, The One I Love tells the story of a young married couple (Ethan and Sophie), played by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss respectively, who seek the assistance of a therapist, played by Ted Danson.

The therapist realizes the couple is out of sync with each other and recommends a weekend away. The therapist has an excellent reputation for rekindling faltering marriages and turning them into successful ones. He sends them to a sunny, beachfront house complete with a guest house, pool, and various trails along the water- it is simply a paradise.

I admire the creativity of the screenplay.

In a nutshell, the couple meets their ideal, perfect versions of each other while they are basking at the vacation house-just the two of them. Ethan’s alter-ego is suave, athletic, and sensitive to Sophie’s needs- while Sophie’s is sexy, flirtatious, and invested in Ethan’s life. The real versions are bored, lazy, and a bit disheveled.

The flaws they once saw in each other are replaced with the perfect spouses. It is fantasy-like. As one half of the couple slowly begins to fall in love with the fantasy version, the other half begins to get jealous and the film dives into a tale of who winds up with whom? But is it a fantasy? Are the perfect versions real people or something reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

It is tough to know what the intentions of the film are- if any.

A weakness I felt the film has is it plods along a bit too much. At a brief 90 minutes, the film somehow has a sleepy, slow-moving undertone and could have easily been a short film or wrapped up within 45 or 50 minutes.

I did not feel the chemistry between Duplass and Moss as strongly as I would have liked. Individually fine actors, the spark did not ignite for me.

I wish Ted Danson had a larger role. The focal point was obviously the young couple, but the mysteriousness surrounding the paradise was never really explained and Danson’s character could have been the key to the entire story. Did he contrive the entire situation? Was it fantasy? His brief part left many plot holes unexplained.

The One I Love is a creative effort and has an imaginative angle, but left me wanting a bit more clarity than I was served up. The film is mysterious, yes, but also confusing and slightly dull and uneven.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best First Screenplay

The Guest-2014

The Guest-2014

Director-Adam Wingard

Starring-Dan Stevens

Scott’s Review #220


Reviewed February 7, 2015

Grade: C-

The Guest is a thriller from 2014 that can, perhaps, be classified under the adage “it’s so bad that it’s good”, though as I pondered writing this review, that could be a bit of a stretch.

As poor as the film is, there is something that I slightly enjoyed about it.

The premise is simple- a Midwestern family- the Peterson’s, is suddenly visited by a veteran soldier, named David, who claims to be a friend of the parent’s deceased son Caleb. David easily insinuates himself into their lives and the Peterson’s extend an invitation for him to stay a few days to rehash details about Caleb.

The family is a middle-class one, yet struggling financially, and consisting of a mother and father, a college-aged daughter named Anna- the actress eerily resembling a young Gwen Stefani, and a bullied, timid, high school-aged son named Luke.

From the get-go, something is off with David, but his motives are unclear to the audience.

The issues with the film are aplenty.

For starters, the acting is rather poor. The most notable actors in the film are Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) and Sheila Kelley (L.A. Law) and a collection of unknowns. Stevens and Kelley give better performances, and I particularly thought Stevens very believable in a role opposite of his Downton Abbey alter ego, but the rest of the cast is wooden and un-compelling.

The weakest parts of The Guest, though, are the inane plot points and the 1980’s style soundtrack- were the filmmakers going for a retro throwback? The film is set in present times so this aspect remains a mystery.

To be fair, the story does start as interesting- I wondered, Is it a Fatal Attraction type of film? What is David’s motive? What was his relationship with the deceased Caleb? Does he intend to help or harm the family?

The reveal towards the end of the film is as much implausible as it is ridiculous and an enormous disappointment. Without giving too much away, the government plays a large role in the meat of the film and it does little to provoke sympathy for any of the characters, but rather, only elicits further confusion.

The attempted (and botched) love story between David and Anna does not work. They have little chemistry and the rooting value is not there especially as he picks up her drunken best friend at a party. Is the audience supposed to root for David and Anna or is it merely a weak sub-plot to the thrill aspect of the film? I suspect the latter.

Despite all of these negatives, I did not find myself despising the film as it trucked along- rather, I found the film to be more of a muddled mess than anything else.

It is not a good film, but there is something slightly appealing about it. Some of the death scenes are well done and the budding friendship between David and the bullied son is rather sweet.

The son is enamored with the strong, masculine David, and David, in turn, serves as protector of the boy, humiliating the bullies who gave the kid a black eye. The film does not delve into a sexual angle regarding this, but rather it is a bond that is nice to see in the film. It has a nice, warm element.

Another impressive point to The Guest is that it ends with a surprise that leaves room for a sequel. However, due to the success that the film did not achieve, I doubt a sequel will ever see the light of day.

A poorly written, weak acted film, The Guest has moments of interest but fails miserably at providing a strong film viewing experience.

By the end of the film, I still had no idea of the main character’s motivations and that is a huge problem.

Confusing and convoluted are adjectives best to describe this film.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Editing