MPW-99638Still Alice (2014).

D/W: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland. DP: Denis Lenoir. Starring: Julianne Moore/Alec Baldwin/Kristen Stewart/Kate Bosworth/Hunter Parrish/Shane McRae. (based on Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name)

Many a time a performance has stood out against the backdrop of a weaker film. Still Alice joins that group of films which arguably includes many an Oscar winning bunch. Indeed, what ultimately is spellbinding is the acting talents of Julianne Moore.

The co-directed and co-written film follows renowned Columbia University psychologist Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) who has just turned fifty and started to have moments of memory lapses. The film drops us into her experience right away and uses clever close ups of her communicating her symptoms to her doctor, who is kept off-screen for a short while. Alice eventually reveals her situation to her husband John (Alec Baldwin) and begins her early onset Alzheimer’s journey. This of course includes sharing this painful news with her three children.

Still Alice is somewhat faithful to its source novel by Lisa Genova, but misses a few important beats. In the novel Alice feels so isolated by her husband’s and co-workers reactions to the disease that she seeks out her own community. She creates a social group at her home for other early on-set Alzheimer’s patients. By removing this important plot line Alice is not given much agency in her care taking. Other plot points, like her visit to an Alzheimer’s home, feel marooned without a thread to film’s narrative. Also some parts of the script are glaringly weaker than others or appear disingenuous, which is never at fault in the novel which is memorably told in first person.

The film is thankfully able to root itself in Moore’s performance, specifically in her eyes. Moore is able to give Alice an intelligent transparency that thread lines throughout the film despite her character not being very established before things fall apart. One almost wanted more screen time from her despite the miscasting of Baldwin as her husband, does anyone buy him as a scientist? Kristen Stewart is decent as her youngest daughter Lydia, though she lacks the fire to match Moore. The film’s editing and pacing make some transitions slightly jarring and unfortunately it is simply a testament to Moore’s abilities that one is moved in the end. One cannot help see this film in tandem with Sarah Polley’s 2006 excellent film, Away From Her, based on an Alice Munro short story. Away From Her sees a childless couple go through the same harrowing experience and is the better film overall.

On a final side note, although completely dissimilar in content, Still Alice shares a birth plan with Fifty Shades of Grey. Genova self-published her novel in 2009 before it was picked up a few years later by publishers, like E.L. James. As trends continue in the publishing acquisitions realm it shall be fascinating to see what else is scooped up from writers still trying to get the attention of editors, let alone film producers.

Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (2012)

D: Bill Condon. W: Melissa Rosenberg. DP: Guillermo Navarro. Starring: Kristen Stewart/Robert Pattinson/Taylor Lautner/Peter Facinelli/Billy Burke/Ashley Greene/Nikki Reed/Dakota Fanning/Michael Sheen/Maggie Grace/Jackson Rathbone/Kellan Lutz/Mackenzie Foy/Jamie Campbell Bower/Elizabeth Reaser/Lee Pace/Joe Anderson/Noel Fisher/JD Pardo. (NOTE: Based on Stephanie Meyer’s young adult fiction book of the same name.)

Four books and five films later the Twilight Saga came to an official end over the weekend. I began this blog more than three and a half years ago and the first review I did was on Twilight. So this not only feels like cinematic closure, but it also means I finally never have to write about soporific vampire love ever again. Or at least not until the series is ceremoniously rebooted, which hopefully won’t be in my lifetime. We can all dream!

Breaking Dawn – Part 2 picks up where its disastrous predecessor, Breaking Dawn – Part 1, left off. Kristen Stewart’s Bella has not only given birth to her half human, half vampire daughter, but has survived the birth by being turned into a vampire herself. Sporting crazy contacts, fake lashes, and even more fake hair Stewart strides into her new life with immense restraint and a humorous first scene with Taylor Lautner’s Jake. Both in the books and films, the werewolf ‘imprinting’ is the silliest and least believable element to the wolf lore. This concept reaches levels of embarrassment as Lautner has to painfully admit to Stewart and Pattinson that he has ‘imprinted’ on their infant daughter. Awkward.

Even more silly was Stewart and Pattinson notorious “first night” together as vampires. Like something out of a CW fairy tale, the montage is so honey coated it practically oozes off the screen. Somewhere, someplace, my 14 year old self is mighty thankful that her vampire story growing up was Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At least that character kicked some ass and didn’t feed ridiculous notions of candlelit sex to teens. I digress.

Much like Eclipse, this installment enlarges the vampire world and has the Cullen family out recruiting other vampires to join their stance against the Volturi. These journeys feel laboriously slow as Stewart’s voice-over is used as a crutch to transition all these various scenes and locations. In the very first Twilight, Stewart’s voice-over was deliberate and diegetically made sense as she was a character in new surroundings and very much alone. But now so much further in her relationship and part of a team effort to protect her unfortunately named daughter (Renesmee???) the voice-over falls flat. The special effects on Renesmee don’t help either.

However, what ultimately saves the film is this vampire community. Unlike the caped and archaic Volturi, this group of misfits has life and energy. The new actors seem to help breathe life into the boring Cullen clan and director Bill Condon seems more at ease with his pacing with these new elements. Most memorable is talented Lee Pace as rogue vamp-dude Garrett, Joe Anderson’s English loner Alistair and Noel Fisher’s Transylvanian Vladimir. They all seem to be having an immense amount of fun, as does Michael Sheen whose Aro laugh is pure unadulterated glee. Filmed back to back with the last film, this installment also sports the best opening and ending credits of the series.

Thankfully, the werewolves are less important in Breaking Dawn – Part 2 as they were one of the pitfalls of the last film. However, Lautner’s Jacob’s break from his pack to form his own is completely abandoned in the film. Not a heartbreak, but still it could have been tackled in one scene and allowed Lautner’s decisions and imprinting to have clear consequences. That being said the acting is all about the same level here as it has been in the rest of the film so maybe consequences really wouldn’t make a difference. What did was screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg’s trick story element at the climax of the film that allows action that never happens in the book to be seen visually. This trick saves Breaking Dawn – Part 2 from the anti-climactic ending of the novel.

Ultimately, the best film and novel out of the bunch was New Moon. Brimming with teenage idealism and the destruction it causes, the film and book have the most memorable moments out of the whole saga. And a saga it is. For all those who camped out to feed their obsession, clapped and yelped in the theaters, this must be a sad weekend indeed. For the rest of us, phew, no more teenage sparkle vampire drama for awhile.  Cheers to that.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010).

D: David Slade. DP: Javier Aguirresarobe. W: Melissa Rosenberg. Starring: Kristen Stewart/Robert Pattinson/Taylor Lautner/Billy Burke/Peter Facinelli/Ashley Greene/Nikki Reed/Kellan Lutz/Jackson Rathbone/Elizabeth Reaser/Bryce Dallas Howard/Dakota Fanning. (NOTE: Based on Stephanie Meyer’s young adult fiction book of the same name).

The most anticipated release of summer 2010 is here! But whether you were able to camp out for the premiere here in LA or back home at your local theater, twi-hard fever has been dually felt and noted. But it was only back in November that audiences crowded the theaters to see The Twilight Saga: New Moon the sequel to 2008’s successful Twilight. Are you ready for another?

Eclipse picks up right where the last film left off with the most important trio of main actors returning to their roles. Wearing a somewhat obvious wig the whole time, Kristen Stewart manages to keep her Bella simple and eager to learn about the possibility of her new life. As in the last films, Stewart’s own shyness and awkwardness serve her well here. Her chemistry with Robert Pattinson’s Edward is palpable, surely aided a bit by their own off screen romance (or so one would think). With every film we see a better Pattinson acting wise, but his take on Edward may consistently disappoint. Although intense and statuesque, Pattinson still lacks the weight and movement of someone whose over a century old, something I noted in Twilight. Also, his lack of physicality or visual signs of strength has allowed Taylor Lautner’s Jacob to rule over him in the physical and protection of Bella department. An area that has been incredibly hyped up, a love triangle that is present yet not as central to the books as Bella’s type of feelings towards Jacob are more readily known. The story doesn’t hurt because of this emphasis, but sadly has made Lautner’s Jacob seem a little one note and his performance rather too all over the place despite his younger age.

And of course, thankfully, Eclipse is not all about this romance triangle. The best part of the book and now the film is the presence of back stories. Finally audiences, and Bella, get to hear more about where each Cullen has come from, an origin that has shaped their vampire life. This deepens the chemistry and mood of the group scenes and will definitely be a factor in the developing last two films of Breaking Dawn. Jackson Rathbone’s Jasper and Ashley Greene’s Alice are still winning as the young acting standouts of the franchise. Their portrayals feel researched and organic, something some of the cast is unable to tap into (maybe due to the vampire twist?). Billy Burke not included in this as his role as Bella’s father Charlie is still the best casting in the entire franchise. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t have the time to develop the wolf pack or really give audiences perspective into Jacob’s life, something maybe they are saving for the next film?

It must be noted that each film has sported a different director. But these last two used the same director of photography and, of course, used the same screenwriter throughout the series. Rosenberg must be applauded for being able to scrape off all the tangential extras that exist in Meyer’s novels. Similar to Harry Potter films in this way, this franchise has experienced a lot of creative change. However, although different, each film maintains a certain level of continuity and look that is admirable. Specifically both New Moon and Eclipse have embraced the darker, gritter elements of the story that provide excellent contrast to the intense romance of the Bella and Edward story.

On the same vein, it must be recognized that the ‘villain’ of this film is played by a different actress. In both Twilight and New Moon Rachelle Lefevre played the role of Victoria, a red-headed and hot headed vampire with a vendetta against Edward after her own vampire partner, James, was killed. Lefevre rounded out Victoria with a great sense of play, wicked enjoyment and power. Due to scheduling conflicts, as Eclipse was shot right after New Moon was wrapped, Lefevre was ceremoniously fired. A sadness for the franchise as Summit chose this route over working things out (which they obviously did for Anna Kedrick to appear in Up in the Air while also playing Jessica in both films). A sadness because Lefevre’s replacement, Bryce Dallas Howard, plays Victoria with a denseness and gives a one-dimensional performance to a character who is so enraged and grieved that her natural violence manifests itself in an army. Yet if the performance doesn’t anger you, maybe the amount of screen time will as Victoria is clearly in about half a dozen scenes, nothing that couldn’t be rescheduled.

Ultimately, the third book (and now film) will feel very transitional to most audiences. This part of the story exists to merely set up what is to come in the final installment of Breaking Dawn. This does not mean the story lacks moments of weight or interest, but overwhelming this book and film merely reiterates what occurred in New Moon and sets up the conflict of Breaking Dawn. And as the theaters fill up, money is spent, and most of the population basks in wonder and rolls their eyes at the phenomenon, just remember what you liked at that age. And be thankful that this series is all a bit chaste.