Da 5 Bloods
On the Record
I May Destroy You
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When reviewing Burn After Reading in 2008, Mark Kermode theorised that the Coen Brothers had a bizarre dichotomy in their filmography between their genuinely great works (like Blood Simple, Barton Fink and No Country for Old Men) and their overly quirky misfires (such as The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou? and their remake of The Ladykillers). He opined during his appearance on BBC Radio 5Live that "throughout their career, whenever they do something great, they kind of have to go on the back foot and do something fairly lame in order to loosen up afterwards."
It isn't hard to see a similar see-saw effect at play in the career of Matthew Vaughn, who has emerged from the shadows of being Guy Ritchie's producer-of-choice to become a well-regarded filmmaker in his own right. His career post-Ritchie is a veritable oscillation between the outré, bad taste-driven comic book escapades of Layer Cake and Kick-Ass and his somewhat more well-behaved dramatic work on Stardust and X-Men: First Class. Kingsman: The Secret Service sees him trying to recapture the energy and innovation that Kick-Ass had in such rich volumes, and while not all of it works, it is a genuinely entertaining spectacle.
Reuniting Vaughn with comic book creator Mark Millar was a smart move, since both men have essentially built their careers on not giving a damn what anyone else thinks. Both share a love of over-the-top screen violence and a desire to properly interpret comics and graphic novels on screen in the most kinetic way possible. Whatever else may be true of Kingsman (as it shall hereafter be called), it never feels like a product of compromise, or lumbered by needless Hollywood convention in the way that Wanted was. You may not like the finished results in their entirety, but you have to give the filmmakers credit for sticking to their guns in what can be a very unforgiving industry.
For fans of Kick-Ass, Kingsman's visual sensibility will seem very familiar. It takes the juxtaposition of high-end comic book action and the often underwhelming reality of modern life and puts them in a distinctly British environment. Colin Firth's cut-glass accent and immaculate dress sense are the privileged, secretive and gentlemanly elite, tasked with training up Eggsy, the chavvy, carefree and largely directionless embodiment of the working class. Their relationship, like My Fair Lady with knuckle dusters, treads a fine line between parodying the class war dynamic and simply putting it in a fancy suit, but the script is just about strong enough to make it feel believable despite the familiar territory.
There are dozens of films which revolve around the concept of secret spy organisations or conspiratorial networks which are tasked with protecting humanity or enacting some sinister plan. These range greatly in quality, from the light-hearted, family friendly action of Spy Kids to the tedium of The Da Vinci Code or the utter contempt of The Ninth Gate. Kingsman's main argument for wading through this familiar water again seems to be two-fold; it has visual flair to spare, and it has the confidence to take the piss out of anything it likes regardless of whether it will get away with it.
If you try and read into the King Arthur symbolism in the character names and relationships, as you might with A Royal Affair, then you will very quickly draw a blank. Vaughn and Millar did not call Mark Strong's character Merlin to argue that the Bond series can trace its character dynamics back to Thomas Mallory, any more than the Kingsmen's origins in the aftermath of the First World War is meant to be seen as something portentous or historic. Such decisions are a combination of plot convenience (e.g. having rich founders explains why you can afford all this equipment) and to add an air of respectability to proceedings. This is a very British film, after all; being a private investigator or private military company would just be vulgar, darling.
The main reference point in Kingsman, unsurprisingly, is the Bond series. Given the direction in which the franchise has proceeded since Casino Royale, it's both convenient and coherent to believe that Vaughn's intention here was to make an old-school Bond film with modern technology and shooting styles. He borrows all the bits of Bond that he likes - the explosions, the talkative villains, the gadgets and the hero getting the girl at the end - but doesn't follow the visual grammar of the series as it stands now. Instead of grimly focussing on his hero's face and trying to weave in subtext, as both Martin Campbell and Sam Mendes have attempted, Vaughn gives us kinetic battle scenes which are impeccably choreographed, bookended by dialogue which is both postmodern and shamelessly old-fashioned.
It's not just the aesthetic of Kingsman which betrays that effective, if decidedly teenage, Bond fantasy. Valentine's plan to cull the human race, leaving alive only those whom he deems worthy, is only a hop, skip and a jump from Drax's plans for a new Ayran race in Moonraker. The climactic battle borrows heavily from You Only Live Twice and A View to a Kill, while the training with the parachutes nods clearly back to The Spy Who Loved Me. Other references are more sci-fi orientated, with the exploding heads being Scanners with jokes, and the SIM cards plot device being similar to the reinvented Cybermen from Doctor Who, in the two-parter 'Rise of the Cybermen' and 'The Age of Steel'.
These two examples point to both the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of Kingsman as a film. Its biggest strength, which it sustains all the way through, is the sheer brio with which it goes about its business and the striking quality of its set-pieces. The massacre in the church, in which Firth polishes off an entire, rage-driven congregation to the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Freebird, is an absolute riot. It manages to sustain its substance - the idea that even the best people could be turned into monsters by the tiniest change in their brain - while giving us more inventive deaths than Quentin Tarantino has managed in a decade, and with a pace and sense of humour that only the climax of Hot Fuzz could hope to match.
Its biggest weakness, however, lies in that phrase "with jokes". At its most basic, the film is essentially taking a lot of plot points, character arcs and visual decisions from other, more straight-laced films and playing them for laughs. That would be fine if the film was an out-and-out parody like Airplane!, where even the most likeable characters are a self-acknowledged joke; we rooted for Ted Striker in that film while never being asked to take him seriously. But the more the film wears on and the more it wallows in its adolescent spectacle, the most frustrating and insufferable it becomes.
It may seem churlish, even absurd, to criticise a film which is billed at least in part as a comedy for not being serious enough. But constantly desiring to make a joke about something does not mean that one can abandon all internal logic. The best comedies, whether about spying or anything more grounded, always maintain a balance between the integrity of their structure and the content at which they are poking fun. Kingsman is a funny film, but it increasingly becomes a film which indulges its desire to make you laugh at the expense of desiring to make sense. It even goes after soft targets, just like Borat did: would Vaughn have dared to show Firth massacring a mosque full of Muslims, or a temple full of Jews?
Even in the most ridiculous Bond films - think the later Roger Moore efforts, or the worst points of Pierce Brosnan's tenure - there was always tried-and-tested convention to fall back on, a series of narrative beats which the audience could recognise. Die Another Day may still be a terrible film, but at least it is structured in a manner which makes it predictably terrible. Kingsman begins solidly and gradually flails around until it decides to end by blowing everything up (and an utterly pointless anal sex joke, which was cut from some versions).
The other fly in the ointment with Kingsman is its sexual politics. Since we are in Bond territory we do not expect equality on a plate, but given how Vaughn and Millar worked hard to give Hit-Girl agency in Kick-Ass, this is definitely a climb-down from their best work. Aside from Roxy, all of the female characters in this film are either helpless and pitiful (Eggsy's mum), cannon fodder (the congregation and Gazelle) or sex objects (Princess Tilde). You almost get the sense, given her Mary Sue-like qualities, that Vaughn was reluctant to include Roxy in too many scenes, lest she spoil this boys-own adventure.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is an enjoyable and visually spectacular film which is at once a throwback to a less-PC time and a thoroughly contemporary confection. It isn't by any means Vaughn's finest hour, lacking the narrative structure and discipline of his best work, and its character decisions and politics are likely to test the patience of anyone other than a teenage boy. But as a refreshing burst of bad taste in a genre that these days is often far too well-behaved, it's hard not to be entertained by it, at least for a short while.
When you're making a film about an iconic figure, it's very easy to get caught up in the mythology of the person in question and lose sight of the real figure at the heart of the story. This becomes all the more impossible when that figure is Muhammad Ali, whose impact on the sport of boxing is matched only by his political reputation. It is impossible to write the history of America without at least devoting a chapter to Ali, but equally we have every right to ask whether he truly deserves the pedestal society has given him - or at least, whether he deserves one quite so tall.
When We Were Kings is an admirable attempt to document Ali at the moment of what is arguably his greatest triumph - his comeback against George Foreman in 1974, in what was christened 'the Rumble in the Jungle'. If Entertainment Weekly is to be believed, it took director Leon Gast 22 years to finance, shoot and edit the finished film, which went on to win the Best Documentary Oscar in 1996. But just as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is often more interested in guilt and cultural ennui than it is about actual spying, so Gast's film about boxing has less of the sport in it than you may expect, something which is both its most unique quality and its Achilles heel.
The first telling sign of Gast's true intentions lies in his choice of contributors. While a more conventional boxing documentary would have interviewed the two pugilists and their close associates (whether they be family, friends, trainers or whatever), Gast's cast of talking heads consists primarily of journalists and other cultural commentators, like filmmaker Spike Lee and The Village Voice co-founder Norman Mailer. By giving us a vicarious experience of the fight and its build-up, Gast is trying to avoid the trap of just letting the main players reiterate their self-aggrandising soundbites, and for the most part it works really well.
For people of my age, who grew up with the likes of Senna and the later, better works of Julien Temple, Gast's approach with regard to talking heads may come across as rather old-fashioned. But it avoids being televisual, thanks in part to his shooting style and the way in which he frames his speakers, often putting them in middle distance from the frame to convey a sense of perspective, rather than in an aggressive close-up. Mailer particularly benefits from this stylistic choice; you understand from his body language how passionate he is about his subject matter, to an extent that you would never get just from looking at his face and hearing him talk.
What becomes clear very quickly with When We Were Kings is that Gast is just as interested in the culture and politics surrounding the Rumble in the Jungle as he is in the actual fight. Much of the build-up concerns itself with the unstable political climate of Zaire and the unsavoury dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seke, with Mailer sharing a particularly forthright anecdote about the murder of criminals. Just like 'The Thriller in Manila' a year afterwards, the staging of the Rumble in the Jungle is one of two fighters with varying principles at war with each other against a backdrop of poverty and political corruption; money talked to make the fight happen, but once they enter the ring, their honour is the main thing on the line.
The film is also interested in the music of the era, including the cavalcade of musicians which played at the so-called 'Black Woodstock' festival which took place alongside the fight. We get some enjoyable clips of James Brown, B. B. King and others in their respective primes, and it's difficult not to be swept up in the atmosphere of the event. If nothing else, the abundance of this footage, together with the clips of African drummers and dancers, make us feel rooted in the build-up; we soak in our surroundings, and though we are never anything but tourists, we are not manipulated and sold a dummy version of what 1970s Africa was like.
The problem with having so much of this footage, entertaining and enjoyable as it doubtless is, is that the film becomes less focussed of the story in favour of wallowing in the atmosphere. Building up a palpable sense of tension in a thriller is a hard thing to do, but once you have it, it has to pay off in a satisfying way, and the same rules apply to documentaries. Having worked really hard to culturally and historically situate the fight, the film takes a surprisingly long time to get to the first punch being thrown, and the more footage of Ali and Foreman that we get before this point, the more restless and itchy we become.
When Alfred Hitchcock was interviewed by Dick Cavett in 1972, he expressed regret about a scene in Sabotage in which a young boy carries a bomb onto a bus and is blown up by it. Hitchcock described his decision to let the bomb go off (rather than be found and disposed of) as "a terrible mistake" - not because it involved the death of a child, but because he had put his audience "through the mill" and not given them the relief they needed. While the parallel is far from exact, it reflects the main issue with When We Were Kings; instead of getting to the boxing sooner rather than later - something which newcomers would rationally expect - we get a lot of (albeit pleasant) shoe-leather and not enough analysis of the fight itself.
The other effect of situating us so deep within the context of the fight - to the point where it is almost hypnotic - is that we get swept up in the mythology and mystique of Ali without getting an explanation to it. It is edifying to see Ali appealing to the common humanity of Africans and African-Americans, and to see people drawn towards him as a figure. But what we don't get enough of us is the ugly side of Ali - the same person who claimed to unite Africa would also stoop to calling Joe Frazier a gorilla just 12 months later.
It may simply be a factor of my background - as a white, lower-middle-class, British male born in the late-1980s - that I will never appreciate the real impact that Ali had within black culture. It's easy to resort to platitudes, particularly since his passing, and given the broad spectrum of people he has influenced, it would be difficult for any one film to convey his legacy. When We Were Kings made the right decision of focussing on one event and using it as a microcosm to analyse the man; however, you leave the experience admiring the man but with niggling doubts as to why you admire him, or whether that admiration is fully deserved. That may be a failure of mine, but it is also a failure of the film for not pulling in complete novices like myself.
Once we do actually get to the fight, Gast's talking heads hit their stride and we begin to get the level of technical and critical insight which we had expected all along. Mailer's account of the fight is excellent, from his description of Ali's dressing room ("it was like a morgue") to his analysis of Ali throwing right-hand leads to Foreman, and the connotations therein. The fight footage is framed intelligently and the denouement is fitting; if nothing else, it knocks the re-enactment of the fight from Michael Mann's Ali out of the ring and into a cocked hat.
When We Were Kings is an absorbing and intriguing documentary which is dripping with cultural context but sadly a little too light on insight. As a time capsule of the 1970s in general and of this particular era in boxing, the film is little short of brilliant. But as an attempt at deconstruction of a myth - whether Ali's or Foreman's - it doesn't go deep enough, and may leave newcomers to the sport slightly baffled. As an introduction to Ali's mystique, it's definitely worth your time; just don't expect to come out with more answers than questions.
The incremental success of the Despicable Me films has been one of recent mainstream animation's most pleasant surprises. Who would have thought that Illumination Entertainment, which has spent years milking the Ice Age series to death, could also have struck lucky lightning with this likeable comedy and its entertaining sequel? Certainly the films have been among the best things that Steve Carell has done, notwithstanding his recent contribution to The Big Short.
Given that the Minions have become the mascot for the Despicable Me series, it was perhaps inevitable that they would get their own spin-off film. But spin-offs from major franchises are a tough beast to predict; for every cynically commercial cash-in, like Puss in Boots, there is a genuine surprise, like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me or This Is England '86. Minions is in the rarest camp among spin-offs, managing somehow to surpass its source material to deliver a genuinely hilarious comedy which rivals the best work of Aardman.
The comparison with Aardman is not empty praise, nor does it come without much soul-searching. Ever since The Wrong Trousers (or arguably, A Grand Day Out), the company has been held up as an example of what old-fashioned, character-driven animation can achieve. Even without the lasting international appeal of Wallace and Gromit, the likes of Chicken Run and The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists! display the same principles of painstaking attention to detail, intelligent plotting, well-written characters and jokes for all the family. The company has a level of film literacy that is hard to top, but its outputs also manage to be accessible for everyone.
Minions may not be as richly layered as something like Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which was Nick Park's ingenious and hilarious spin on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's not necessarily the kind of film which you would watch repeatedly to spot all the little pop cultural jokes that are littered throughout, and it may lack the immediate tactility of the stop-motion claymation pioneered by Park and Peter Lord. What it is, however, is a thoroughly digital demonstration of the lasting power of visual comedy, and of the legacy of silent cinema which still looms large over children's animation to this day.
In silent cinema, there is a more conscious emphasis on gesture, posture and facial expression, with music and inter-titles filling in the blanks for the audience. For all the technical shortcomings of silent cinema, and however much it played to and created stereotypes, silent films were able to figuratively 'speak' to everyone; they had to convey universal themes through easily-told stories and familiar imagery. Since the talkies came along in the late-1920s, films have to some extent become more word-orientated, with actors now focussing on more subtle emotions and technology advancing to the point where you no longer need to mug to the camera in strange make-up to get across the fact that you are angry, scared, evil or brave.
By making its central characters capable only of speech which is largely nonsense, you would think the closest comparison for Minions would be Teletubbies. In fact, the film in both its character conception and its execution is closer to the work of Sylvain Chomet on Belleville Rendezvous and to a lesser extent The Illusionist. By effectively removing or minimising speech, directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin use physical action and situational comedy to drive the plot. The story is easy to understand but has some nifty qualities, and the rate of jokes is higher than in many modern comedies.
The central nifty twist that Minions employs is the idea of stooges - i.e. minions - searching for a master. The Austin Powers series has touched on the dissatisfaction of underlings, and Shrek 2 brushed close to the issue in its sequence involving our heroes' infiltration of the Fairy Godmother's factory. But Minions confronts the issue head on, taking the tired old story of the small guy trying to find his purpose in the big wide world and building an entire civilisation around it. One could almost call it a justification of chivalry, with the minions being a million little Sancho Panzas waiting in vain for their Don Quixote to come along.
The opening sequence, which breathtakingly chronicles the history of minions, sets up this idea quite brilliantly. There are some stunning physical jokes in here, whether it's Napoleon Bonaparte being blasted across the battlefield by a misplaced cannon, a banana causing the demise of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, or the death of Dracula at the hands of a well-meaning birthday party. Through a series of innocent yet hilarious mishaps, the minions are set-up as every bit as empathetically clumsy as Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot or Harold Lloyd's 'Glasses' persona, and the apathetic football match is a great way to top this section off.
Because the little guys are so much the focus of the film, it is interesting that the actual villains, particularly Scarlett Overkill, come across as more than a little traditional. The film does all it can to keep Kevin, Stuart and Bob as the drivers of the plot, even in the scenes driven more by responsive slapstick. Just as many of the conventions of silent cinema can trace their roots back to those of clowning and pantomime (and commedia dell'arte before that), so Minions' human antagonists do correspond to certain set archetypes, albeit with interesting costumes, unusual names or, in the case of the Tower of London guards, very 1960s hairstyles.
I stated in my Pirates! review that the difference between a convention and a cliché can be found in our emotional response to a given scene, story or gag; if we are enjoying ourselves as we paddle in familiar waters, something is a convention, and if not, it is a cliché. You would definitely struggle to argue that Minions is in any way groundbreaking or blindingly original, just as you would find it difficult to argue that Pirates! is Aardman's best film. But being in familiar territory does not mean we should take the painstaking plot and character construction for granted, in the same way that digital animation is not inherently easier to pull off than stop-motion.
Minions succeeds by taking familiar elements - including central characters who have become icons of pop culture - and delivering the jokes with an amiable efficiency which is very hard to match. It is very difficult to explain exactly why a comedy is funny without simply listing every single joke and thereby spoiling the whole experience. But suffice to say, Balda and Coffin clearly understand pacing and timing, and have learned from their mistakes on the Despicable Me films by taking out a lot of the unnecessary fast-talking which caused the action to drag.
The film also benefits from the narration of Geoffrey Rush, still best known for his role as Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Rush has always had an unusual and characterful voice, something which has given him a distinctive presence in films as varied as Shine, Quills and The King's Speech. While the script he is bringing to life isn't the most remarkable in the world, his intonations is matched very effectively to the facial expressions of the minions, providing some initial impetus and structure to prevent the whole project from becoming an episodic farce.
Minions is a hilarious and highly entertaining spin-off which is more consistently funny than either of the Despicable Me films and arguably the best thing that Illumation Entertainment has produced since the first Ice Age. It's not a perfect film by any means, being somewhat less sure of itself when on British soil rather than in America, but it more than makes up for any niggling lack of originality with its highly effective storytelling and likeable characters. If nothing else it's proof that spin-offs can sometimes surpass their sources, and sets things up very nicely for Despicable Me 3.
It's frequently the fate of Saturday Night Live comedians to follow a successful television career with an immensely underwhelming one in film. The number of SNL cast members who have successfully transitioned to the big screen is relatively small, and the number of successful films based on SNL material is even smaller. For every effort like The Blues Brothers or National Lampoon's Animal House, there are pathetic failures like McGruber, Coneheads and It's Pat! which fall well short of the required standard.
What is ultimately required for any SNL cast member seeing to making the leap is to find the right vehicle, something which can showcase their comedic talents while allowing them to break out of the confinements of TV sketches and demonstrate their potential range. Melissa McCarthy may have already found considerable commercial success since Bridesmaids, but she has yet to find a leading vehicle which genuinely plays to all her strengths. The kindest thing you can say about Tammy is that it isn't the vehicle she needs - though given how trashy mainstream taste has become, it is probably the one we deserve.
Like We're The Millers from the year before, the central problem with Tammy is a total lack of effort on the part of the director in the face of half-decent material. The fact that Ben Falcone is married to his main star may lead to any number of snide remarks about Hollywood relationships, but the problem goes much deeper than any nepotistic tendencies. Falcone's track record in TV is hardly inspiring, helming the Friends spin-off Joey and odd episodes of New Girl - both shows which think they are a great deal funnier and cleverer than they ever had any hope of being.
McCarthy is a talented screen presence, and on a shallow level it's gratifying to find a woman succeeding in Hollywood without being stereotypically skinny. But try as she might, Tammy is a film which constantly conspires against her attempts to bring depth and likeability to her character. It may be more cinematic than a direct spin-off from SNL, insofar as it doesn't overtly feel like a drawn-out series of sketches, but it fails by constantly going for the cheap, low-end gag when it could achieve something funnier and more meaningful with just a little more effort.
Buried somewhere within the misplaced (or misjudged) comic intentions of Tammy, there is a potentially tender and pathos-ridden drama. The lynchpin of the film is the relationship between Tammy and her alcoholic, diabetic grandmother, played with cantankerous glee by Susan Sarandon. Her character takes heavily after Maude in Harold and Maude, being an elderly person definitely not acting her age, and their interplay is the only thing that manages to hold our attention throughout.
Had Falcone and McCarthy, who wrote the script together, had the confidence to play to an audience's patience and intelligence, this could have been a touching comedy-drama about women struggling to find their place in a society where men don't accept them for who they are, and where superficial appearances count for far too much. There are substantial sections of the story where we feel story for Tammy as a character: for all her grotesqueness, rough edges and bad decision-making, she's someone who doesn't deserve many of the problems which befall her. The opening act, involving her husband cheating on her, is a scene that could easily have ended up in The First Wives Club.
But whether through a lack of confidence, studio pressure or a simple failure in judgement, this is not the film which has resulted. Instead these patches of decently-constructed drama are interspersed with asinine, three-rate gross-out set-pieces. Under these circumstances the central relationship between McCarthy and Sarandon becomes like the Werner Herzog sequences with the nuns in Harmony Korine's Mr. Lonely: a diverting dramatic interlude with narrative gravity, punctuating an aimless, unfunny and poorly constructed mess.
Even by the low, throwaway standards of SNL, most of these sequences would have ended up on the cutting room floor. The bee routine is lazy and goes nowhere, and the arguments which Tammy gets into make too little sense to either be funny or advance the plot. The scene where Tammy robs a fast food outlet is badly paced and shambolically assembled, with lots of needless pauses as though McCarthy was waiting for the audience to laugh. Watching these sequences not only gives you the dull, depressing ache which comes from not laughing during a comedy: you also have a solid pang of disappointment in the knowledge that, on the form of Bridesmaids at least, McCarthy can and should do so much better.
McCarthy comes across as our generation's equivalent of John Candy - not only in any form of physical comparison, but also their ability to match a goofy sense of humour with genuine pathos. Both Candy and McCarthy take heavily after the world of clowning, following on the legacy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin of marrying physical pandemonium with an underlying melancholy. In the hands of a good director, both aspects are balanced, but here McCarthy is all energy and no foundation, resulting in a performance which is increasingly aimless and arbitrary.
Sarandon's presence in the film may lead us to make a comparison with The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson's admirable but heavy flawed attempt to adapt Alice Sebold's equally problematic novel. Purely on a like-for-like basis, Sarandon's 'crazy grandmother' here is better than her performance in Jackson's film, and the moral choices that the characters make, while still questionable, are not actively reprehensible. Both films also have uncomfortable tonal lurches, with the shifts from silly and serious seeming random and incongruous.
In the midst of all this disaster and wasted opportunity, there are a couple of redeeming features which prevent Tammy from being a total waste of time. Some of the supporting cast do very well with the limited material presented to them, particularly Kathy Bates in a role which brings fond memories of her appearance in About Schmidt. Dan Aykroyd's brief cameo is all pretty good fun, or at least a lot funnier than many of the projects to which he has lent himself over the last few years.
Tammy also looks pretty accomplished from a visual point of view. Russ T. Alsobrook is in familiar territory, having worked with Falcone on New Girl and lent his cinematographer's eye to the likes of Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. If nothing else, he makes Tammy's trashy beginnings look believable, and while his compositions and lighting choices are nothing special, he does provide some form of continuity to prevent the film from feeling too episodic.
Tammy is a disappointing outing for McCarthy which plays to too few of her strengths and fulfills on far too little of its potential. The central relationship, when it can get a word in edgeways, and the performances of the supporting cast prevent it from being an unmitigated disaster. But while it's basically watchable, there's precious little here to make it memorable or to generate a hearty recommendation. McCarthy remains a talent to keep on one's horizons, but this is not the project she deserves.
By any measurement you care to mention, Julianne Moore has had an extraordinary career. In an industry which remains obsessed with youth and all that is fleeting, her longevity has been little short of inspirational to actors and audiences alike. And in all the time that she has been in Hollywood, she's managed to maintain a good amount of box office pull while being able to choose smaller, more offbeat projects which other actresses her age might never get offered. Mark Kermode admires her work so greatly that in his autobiography, It's Only A Movie, he cast her to play his wife in the fictional film of his life.
Moore's Oscar win for Still Alice, after being nominated on four previous occasions, could be seen as the culmination of a career which has seen her work with such stellar talents as Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman, David Cronenberg, Todd Haynes and Ridley Scott. But even if you take the Oscar out of the equation - taking the Academy's decision with the typical kilo of salt - the film is a really powerful and tender experience. It's a million miles from the typical Hollywood approach to serious illness, and as its centre we find Moore at the very peak of her powers.
Because so much of its essence is about glamour and mystique, Hollywood's most common approach to terrible illnesses is to downplay the symptoms for as long as possible and then jump right ahead to the extreme endpoint. If the film is about, say, a cancer patient, the patient will look as healthy and as well-fed as any member of the cast before suddenly declining in the final reel and popping their clogs. Kermode dubbed it "photogenic movie sickness" in his review of Gus van Sant's Restless (think Harold and Maude but pretentious and unfunny). Long after the star system declined, Hollywood is still wary about letting its leading lights deliberately dress down, unless they do so in a manner which deliberately draws attention to their own so-called pain and suffering.
By contrast, Still Alice deftly avoids this enormously problematic pothole, showing Alice's decline in full and over a steady period. The first traces of her condition are so slight that they seem insignificant, the sort of thing that could be excused or attributed by her busy lifestyle and demanding personal life. But bit by bit the evidence grows and our hearts grow heavy as Alzheimer's begins to eat away at all the things that define Alice, whether it's her ability to do her job or to recognise her own family.
Moore's performance throughout the film is brilliant, refusing to go down the showy route and just letting the character unfold before us. She continuously resists any urge to fly off the handle and thereby makes her most painful and embarrassing moments ache all the more. Most painful is where we see her urinate herself because she cannot remember the way to the toilet. Like Naomi Watts' masturbation scene at the end of Mulholland Drive, the scene takes an action which could induce a snigger and uses it to express how hollowed out a person has become.
By adopting such a naturalistic approach, the film is making a powerful point about the way that our society deals with long-term illness and a slow, painful decline in faculties. In this age of reduced attention spans, whether caused by technology or merely exacerbated by it, we want stories that cut to the chase; we don't want life to end, and if it has to end we want it to be quick and painless. Still Alice is a reminder that life isn't always like that; our perception of time can vary in speed, and in wishing for something to be over, we neglect to create the memories which in the end may matter the most to us. Our society drastically needs to decrease its pace and regain the meaning to be found in slow, close personal contact.
Still Alice is also an examination of identity, and how it can be retained through certain essential qualities even as other aspects of it are disintegrated. The title is an expression of eternal dignity towards the central character, with neither the directors nor the other characters ever drawing a line in the sand beyond which Alice no longer exists. Just as people like to characterise cancer as something which can be physically beaten back and fought, so Alzheimer's is not allowed to define or swallow up Alice: even when she can barely speak, we still believe that it's her speaking and her brain working hard to make that happen.
Much has been made of the fact that co-director Richard Glatzer suffered from ALS (motor neurone disease) while Still Alice was being made, and died shortly after the film was released. Peter Debruge, writing in Variety, speculated in detail about how Glatzer and his partner and co-director Wash Westmoreland used their personal experiences to bring realism to Alice's story. It's easy to overegg this point and conclude that the film is somehow semi-autobiographical, but what is undeniable is that every emotional development in the film feels gut-wrenchingly real. The script is tender yet understated, and the directors allow the material to speak for itself rather than force-feeding us sentimentality.
An additional theme within Still Alice is that of expectations and the relationship between culture and medicine. Alice finds herself at a confluence of both spheres of human endeavour, with her daughter entertaining ambitions of being an actress and her husband being offered a role at the prestigious Mayo Clinic. While the film tends to focus more on medicine, both are ultimately given value by Alice's experiences, and she struggles to match people's expectations of what she can still do against the high hopes she has for them. She wants the best for her husband and daughter, but her desire to support is balanced by a need to fight the self-loathing which leads her to attempt suicide late in the film.
Moore's brilliant performance is balanced in this regard by a brace of very fine supporting turns, from a pair of actors on surprisingly good form. Alec Baldwin has drifted into lazy brashness far too often recently, but here he manages to hold himself together, keeping his frustrations just below the surface and letting his posture do the talking. Likewise, Kristen Stewart has very consciously sought to broaden her range since the Twilight series concluded, and while not all her attempts at this have worked, here it pays off. We begin expecting yet another mopey, introverted china doll and end up really taking to her character.
Still Alice is also a pleasant surprise in terms of the talent involved behind the camera. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir doesn't have the greatest record, lensing such turkeys as 88 Minutes, Righteous Kill and So Undercover. But here he's on best behaviour, with some tender, bittersweet colours and compositions which serve the material very nicely. Equally good is the unobtrusive score by Ilan Eshkeri: his work here rivals his score for Stardust, adding subtle emphases in every scene without feeling the need to dominate proceedings.
Still Alice is an almost perfect film which knocks almost every other American film about illness into a cocked hat. Despite the occasionally repetitive mis-step or episodic moment, it rises to the complex challenges presented by its subject matter to leave us both heartbroken and inspired. Moore's performance is of towering brilliance and she lifts everything around her, resulting in a gripping, tender and believable drama whose importance will only grow in time.