Glatzer & Westmoreland: Still Alice (2014)

There’s a particular subgenre of melodrama – one of the purest kinds – that focuses on a woman, usually a mother, as she is diagnosed and has to come to terms with a debilitating or life-threatening condition, following her through one dark passage after another as she sets things in place for her children and family, in scenes that are so terrible and private that you have to look away. Over the past half-decade or so, that impulse has been absorbed and somewhat transformed by Breaking Bad, but if Still Alice is anything to go by, it’s started to make a return to a more classical mould, even if this particular film also has quite a post-cinematic feel at times as well. As in so many of its progenitors, it’s about fighting the shame of being unwell as much as the disease itself, as Alice (Julianne Moore) suddenly finds herself dislocated from her career as a Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University after she is diagnosed with a rare type of early onset Alzheimers that is likely to be inherited by at least one of her three children, although only her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) chooses not to have herself that tested. In some ways, that premise is so harrowing and traumatic that the moment-to-moment ebb and flow of the film doesn’t really have to be, immersing us in Alice’s relationship with her husband John (Alec Baldwin), also a Columbia academic, as her lifeworld starts to gradually, imperceptibly become more and more atonal, punctuated by wanderings and ramblings that get longer and longer, words and images that get harder and harder to recall and retain - a situation that’s even more poignant in that Alice’s linguistic specialiy is early childhood language acquisition, a mystery she tries to mimic in order to reacquire a vocabulary and syntax that gradually starts to elude her. As a result, the film gets more dissonant as it proceeds, gradually dissociating Alice from her familiar, quotidian life, until each scene feels somewhat jettisoned or cast adrift from the one before – there is a very natural shift in focus to the Long Island shore – which is disorienting but also strangely liberating and even gently comic, as Alice’s condition proceeds by freeing her more and more from the burden of being aware of it. In that sense, it’s a portrait of Alzheimer’s from the inside – or a hypothetical portrait – as well as a string of small performances from Julianne Moore, or even an ensemble drama in which she’s the only person, especially towards the end. Over the course of the film, she seems to cycle through twenty years of acting, recalling all her roles in the same way Alice comes to recall her family, haptically, through her body – the opening scenes could be taken straight from Short Cuts – enabling the film in turn to move from a quite classical, even staid cinematic approach to a more free-flowing post-cinematic sensibility in which there are moods but no real memories, vagaries of tone and affect but no stable spatio-temporal or narrative base beneath them. All of which to say is that Alzheimers starts to feel less exceptional, and that Alice starts to feel more attuned to an ambience that the other characters simply aren’t sensitive enough to experience, which is tragic in its own way – harrowing at times – but also refreshing and respectful, which seems to have been the spirit of Lisa Genova’s original novel as well. 


Marshall: Into The Woods (2014)

In some ways, Stephen Sondheim’s musicals defy being actually staged. For the most part, their tone treads such a fine line between dissonant naturalism and the more inclusive, upbeat tendencies of musical theatre that they seem to exceed any kind of performance that is erected around them, especially in a contemporary milieu in which musical theatre seems to be increasingly collapsed into a retro camp pastiche that is utterly inimical to Sondheim’s style. Add to that the fact that Sondheim’s music often occurs at a cinematic pace, with abrupt transitions in tone and space that almost seem to conjur up cuts and montage sequences as they proceed, and it’s quite striking that there have only been two other film adaptations of his work, although he contributed songs to a great number of films between Harold Prince’s adaptation of A Little Night Music itself an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night – and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. Where Prince pretty much offered a filmed play, and Burton aimed for a more fluid combination of film and theatre, Marshall’s adaptation falls somewhere in between, in something like a stand-alone film that just happens to feel as if Sondheim has contributed every song on the soundtrack, possibly at the last moment or as a hasty afterthought. In some ways, that makes for a more satisfying experience than actually seeing Into The Woods onstage, not least because it’s such an ensemble musical, with many different voices and episodes interweaving simultaneously, a feature that Marshall makes the most of in some of the film’s most soaring and panoramic sequences, which are occasionally shot so tightly and perfectly that it’s impossible to tell if a chord inspired a cut, or a cut inspired a chord. At the same time, though, and for all the magical interludes and special effects, it’s an adaptation that makes you aware of how evocative the abstracted, stylised space of the stage can be – in some ways, it would work better if it were more abstract, or more willing to abstract Sondheim’s music into cinematography, rather than setting – as the relentless Disney backdrops leach a great deal of the distinctive dissonance and melancholy from Sondheim’s signature, reslulting in some arrangements that will be quite startling for fans of the original production, or even the more recent Broadway revival. In that sense, it’s a bit of a conundrum, an adaptation that feels completely, evocatively prescient of the inherently cinematic qualities of Sondheim’s work, but that doesn’t seem to feel confident enough to translate them into an actual film that’s true to this specific work – a film that would inevitably be much darker and more distressing than this odd, slightly confected combination of Game of Thrones, Maleficent and Disney’s need for a PG rating.


Falcone: Tammy (2014)

At her best, Melissa McCarthy has an uncanny way of being low-key and high-energy at the same time, a combination that makes her the ideal actor to propel a road trip film. In fact, ever since her breakout in Bridesmaids – where her bridesmaid opted for the biggest, most cross-country bridal trip – all her films have pretty much been concealed road trip films, or not-so-concealed road trip films, as in the case of Identity Thief. However, where Identity Thief tried to bring McCarthy a little too close to John Candy, right down to the drumming on the dashboard, Tammy feels more organically tied to her brand of spun-out intensity, perhaps because it’s also written and directed by her husband, Ben Falcone. In essence, it’s a Dukes of Hazzard-style series of road vignettes that unfold when Tammy, played by McCarthy, gets ejected from her workplace and her marriage all in one morning, and sets out from her home town of Murphysboro on Illinois Route 13 without much of a plan, except to make the most of her alcoholic but affluent grandmother (Susan Sarandon), who’s hitched herself along for the ride. Road films often proceed best by dispersing any real sense of a destination, and that’s very much the case here, not least because, as her mother (Allison Janney) points out, Tammy has a history of bolting for the town limits whenever something goes wrong, only to sheepishly return home a couple of hours later. In order to really prove to herself that she’s making a change this time, then, she has to keep driving when she reaches the highway – the destination doesn’t matter – and that takes us through a veritable tour of heartland America, less a series of scenes than spaces – diners, campsites, fast food outlets, restaurants, general stores – that rearrange themselves around Tammy’s comic restlessness, the impatience that McCarthy does so well. In fact, she’s so restless for change that the road simply seems to slow things down, decelerating her with all the trinkets she has to sweep off shelves and push off counters just to get along to the next stopoff or offramp, until it starts to feel as if she and her grandmother are getting closer and closer to the actual earth, deeper and deeper into a groove. With that kind of a vibe, it’s only a matter of time before they’re on the lam as well, going to ground amongst the small-scale, intimate Americana that so often comes to light in Fourth of July films, culminating with a lesbian Independence Day party hosted by Tammy’s long-lost aunt Lenore (Kathy Bates) and her wife Susanne (Sandra Oh). While that's not necessarily McCarthy’s funniest destination – that’s probably still the warehouse at the end of The Heat – it gives itself over to her peculiar brand of energy more than any other, opening up a wacky, widescreen America in her wake, a nation of spare parts and minor roles.


Jolie: Unbroken (2014)

Angelina Jolie’s second film is an adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of US war hero Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), a former Olympic gold medallist who survived an air crash off the coast of Nauru and spent forty-seven days drifting on an inflatable raft, only to be picked up by the Japanese navy and sent to a series of a brutal prisoner-of-war camps, where he was overseen by the notorious Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi). In many ways, it’s a period drama in attitude as much as content, as Jolie sets out to craft the kind of film that the characters themselves might have expected to watch about their experiences once they returned from the front, a decision that’s particularly interesting when it comes to the relationship between Zamperini and Watanabe, which would be  intensely homoerotic – Miyavi is a gay icon in Japan – were it not for the fact that the film is tactically and tactfully oblivious to subtext in the manner of so much 50s cinema, although it’s precisely that studied oblivion that allows Watanabe’s fascination with Zamperini to be far more lurid and lascivious than it might have otherwise been. In that sense, the Coen Brothers make their mark in quite an odd  and uncharacteristic way, standing back from their more knowing brand of historical pastiche to help craft a screenplay in which it’s clear that there are more layers to this somewhat beatific, airbrushed story, but equally clear that the film itself is never allowed to know about them. As might be expected, that creates quite a flat, almost empty tone, not least because the actual historical proximity of the war – the most important thing for a 50s audience - is somewhat muted by this point in time. Yet that’s perfectly attuned to the vast expanses of Zamperini’s Pacific ordeal, which casts the prisoner-of-war sequences adrift in turn, as cinematographer Roger Deakins crafts a light palette utterly dazed by sun, sea and sky, as if to visualise lethargy turning lethal, those last few moments when utter exhaustion produces its own odd, hallucinatory high. Squinting your way from one fleeting plane shadow across water to another, it’s a war film that self-dissociates as it proceeds, or even self-dissociates to survive, much like Zamperini himself, removing you to ever quieter, flatter digital distances even as it escalates in intensity and atrocity. Watching it, then, partakes of the slightly dissociative quality that tends to characterise war films made in the immediate aftermath of the wars they depict – as opposed to the smooth, streamlined sympathetic engagement of recent WWII nostalgia cinema – and that’s perhaps starting to be a bit of a signature for Jolie as well, who may just emerge as one of the most unexpected war auteurs of her generation.


Hopkins: The Love Punch (2013)

Separation and remarriage have become so integral to romantic comedy that it’s quite refreshing to see a comedy of remarriage that’s as retro and screwy as The Love Punch. As Richard and Kate Jones, Pierce Brosnan and Emma Thompson play a pair of wacky, ultra-compatible divorcees who make up their minds to crash the wedding of the French businessman responsible for draining their pension fund, and restore their life savings with his fiancee’s ten billion dollar diamond necklace. Of course, it’s their own wedding and remarriage they’re moving towards, as they ship their friends Penelope (Celia Imrie) and Jerry (Timothy Spall) to the South of France, where they commence their heist by impersonating a foursome of wealthy Texan businessman, after realising that bursting into the CEO’s office to scold him into returning their money isn’t going to work. As might be expected, the heist itself is suffused with the same kind of offbeat oblivion, the slight unworldliness of parents beyond a certain age, as Richard and Kate outsource all the technical details of the heist to their son over a series of tortuous skype conversations, and fantasize about giving their nemesis a piece of their mind even more than they fantasize about ripping him off. At the same time, though, it all feels quite continuous with Brosnan’s more high-profile heist films as well, which always had a comic, parodic edge that’s simply a little more accentuated here, without ever detracting from the details and procedure of the heist itself, which are lovingly detailed and elaborated as in any of Brosnan’s previous outings. At moments, it’s almost a bit like witnessing the Bond Brosnan might have been if he’d chosen to model himself on Roger Moore rather than Sean Connery, bringing a bit more of his typical wryness into his somewhat atypical Bondness, and transforming Emma Thompson in turn into the great Bond girl who never was. In both cases, that gives the actors license to have fun, license to rediscover the pleasures of acting and interacting afresh before your very eyes in the manner so peculiar to screwball comedy, which in turn creates a charming, low-key intimacy that often recalls the artlessness of their earliest television outings - Remington Steele meets Alfresco – when they were as totally unencumbered by posterity and prestige as they appear to be here.