"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris



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Still Alice : A Review


Still Alice, written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, is the story of Alice (Julianne Moore), a Columbia University linguistics professor among the best in the world in her field, who is stricken with early onset Alzheimer's disease. The film is based on the 2007 novel, "Still Alice", by Lisa Genova.

Still Alice is a pretty standard, by-the-book, 'disease' movie, the likes of which can be seen most any night of the week on cable television, with one glaring exception though, the spectacular performance of Julianne Moore. Moore's performance is meticulous, specific and forceful, all the while deftly avoiding the ever present danger of sentimentality that can so often derails actors taking on these sorts of roles.

Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore is one of the great actresses of our time. A look at her work over the last twenty years reveals Moore to be a master craftswoman and major talent. Her string of truly great and courageous performances starts in 1993 with Short Cuts and includes but is not limited to, her roles in Safe, Boogie Nights, The End of the Affair, Magnolia, The Hours, A Single Man, The Kids are Alright and finally this year with Still Alice. Moore's only missteps in her career have come about by being swayed by the siren's call of movie stardom. Whenever she has made the leap for the brass ring of being a 'star', she has seemed out of place. Julianne Moore is an actress, one of the best there is, and she needs to stay in the 'art house' in order for her to make the most of her exceptional talent.

Kristen Stewart

Kristen Stewart

Kristen Stewart has a supporting role as one of Alice's daughter's. It was good to see Stewart back on the road to recovery from those awful Twilight movies. I remember the first time I ever saw Stewart on screen, it was in Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn. Stewart played a teen girl who befriends and tries to seduce the main protagonist Chris played by Emile Hirsch. Stewart just lit up the screen in every scene she inhabited. She had a charisma and magnetism to her that was unmistakable. In the scene where she tries to convince Chris to sleep with her, her sexual yearning was palpable and her presence combustible. I thought she had big things ahead of her as an actress and artist. Then Twilight happened. She can't be faulted for taking the gig and the money, but the type of fame that comes along with a film like that can be death to an actress. Escaping the shadow of Twilight will be no easy task, as audiences have long memories and short attention spans and critics can be a fickle and unforgiving bunch. But Stewart's work in Still Alice seems like a step in the right direction on the road to artistic redemption. I think if she can do more supporting roles, in films like this, films set in the real world, as opposed to imaginary ones filled with vampires, werwolves and the like, she will stand a fighting chance to really become an actress of note. She has some great advantages going for her, she is young, she is beautiful,  and she does have talent, so I wouldn't bet against her, but she must avoid the blockbuster like the plague, and take up permanent residence in the art house.

Speaking of art, let's talk about the art and craft of acting for a moment. Playing someone with a disease of the mind is a road fraught with artistic peril. All too often actors (or directors) end up focusing on the external and trying to engender pity in the audience instead of the internal which requires embodying a character and letting audience opinions fall where they may. Another danger of the external is for an actor to get showy when portraying a mental illness, dementia or Alzheimer's character. The key to playing characters with these sorts of issues is to understand that all humans are rational thinking beings, even when they appear to act irrationally. The difference between a person acting rationally and irrationally is based on external judgement, not internal judgement. Irrational behavior is simply the result of a person's inability to perceive the world or gather information like a 'normal' person would. No one decides or chooses to act irrationally. So someone with a mental illness for example, is using logic, reason and rational thought to make decisions, it is just that their perceptions and information gathering are skewed by their illness and so their actions and decisions are based on faulty or incomplete evidence. The way to play this is to see the world from the characters perspective, not the external one we live everyday, and to stay grounded in the character's reality and be specific in intention and action. This approach helps to avoid the common problem of an actor depicting a mentally ill/brain damaged/cognitively disabled character as flighty or distracted. A great example of how to do this is Cate Blanchett's performance in her Oscar winning performance in Blue Jasmine. Her train of thought is out of sync with the rest of the world, but it isn't internally illogical, in fact it makes perfect sense to her, and it isn't distracted at all, it has a laser-like focus but just not on what everyone else is focused on.

Cate Blanchett in   Blue Jasmine.

Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine.

I have worked with many actors trying to figure out these 'mentally ill' roles, and the key to unlocking them has always been clarity of thought, not obscurity of thought. This may seem counter intuitive, but it is the key to getting inside the mind of someone who isn't 'thinking right' according to the outside world. Once you can create order, logic and reasoning that fits with the internal perceptions and world view of the 'mentally ill/cognitively disabled' character, then you've created a specific, detailed and actual human being, grounded and real, and not a caricature, generalization or approximation. 

Mental illness/dementia/Alzheimer's patients are not vacant as much as they may appear to be, quite the opposite actually. Julianne Moore's Alice actually describes the internal process of Alzheimer's in the film, when she says the words are right in front of her but she can't quite grasp them. This is Alzheimer's as an internally active searching or reaching for thoughts and words, not a passive vacancy and deterioration. This is a way to fill this type of character, by filling their apparent mental void with a distinct use of their senses. For instance, how does the character try and remember? Do they use their internal sight, like Moore's description of 'seeing' the words in front of her? Do they try and listen for the words or clues? Or are they tactile, an example of which could be Moore's description of the impulse to try and 'reach out and grasp them'? Once you discover the dominant sense associated with remembering, be it sight, sound, touch or in some cases a combination of them all, then you can build internal associations that sufficiently animate the void in cognitive recognition. Combining techniques like this, and the previously mentioned clarity of thought, specific focus and intention, and the understanding of the internal order, logic and reason of a character are the ways to create a genuine and memorable character who suffers from any of these horrific diseases. This is what Julianne Moore does so skillfully in Still Alice. Both Moore's work in Still Alice and Blanchett's in Blue Jasmine are master classes in this approach to playing the mentally ill/cognitively impaired character, and every actor should study them closely.

You may think this is a lot of insider acting technique mumbo jumbo that has no application for any 'normal' person who isn't an actor, aspiring or otherwise. I think this may not be entirely true. These acting techniques are just an approach used to try and understand another human being different from ourselves. This 'other' has a radically different perception, perspective and understanding of the world than anything we have probably ever experienced. Being able to find understanding and empathize with them, and not just sympathize for them, is a way to build a connection that bridges all human conditions and conventional communication. Just the attempt to understand the internal logic of the mentally/cognitively ill, is a way to express much needed, and sometimes healing, love and release negative judgements and frustrations. These techniques are a way for the actor to express the humanity of their character, and for the non-actor they can be a way to find our own humanity and embody the compassion that the stricken so desperately need and deserve. 

As for the film Still Alice, it is a pretty average movie albeit one with an exquisitely crafted performance at it's center. If you want to watch a virtuoso acting performance surrounded by a rather mundane film, then Still Alice is the movie for you. If you are an actor, Still Alice is well worth seeing if for no other reason than to witness Julianne Moore, a master craftsperson, skillfully ply her artistry.

© 2015




BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): A Review

"The two hardest things in life to deal with are failure and success" - author unknown



Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the story of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a former star of the fictitious superhero "Birdman" franchise films, who is on the downside of his career and tries to reignite it by adapting, directing and starring in a stage version of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The film follows the trials and tribulations of the staging of the play, of Riggan's life and his descent (or further descent) into madness.

Besides Michael Keaton in the lead, the film boasts a stellar cast of supporting actors including Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan and Zach Galifianakis. All of them turn in solid and sometimes spectacular performances. Norton in particular is really great as Mike Shiner, a stage actor intensely committed to his craft and work. 

Keaton is the best he has ever been in the lead role of Riggan Thomson. He effortlessly captures Riggan's desperation, emptiness and regrets, both professional and personal. Keaton emanates Riggan's frantic need to be famous, important, respected and loved (both by others and himself), and that reeking stink of desperation seeps through his every pour and envelops and follows him wherever he goes.  Keaton as Riggan is both charismatic and repulsive at the same time, no easy feat, and he carries the film with the power of his performance as a man running out of performance power.

"Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige" - Mike Shiner

The symbolism of having Keaton play the lead is undeniable. Keaton has been identified for decades by his portrayal of Batman in the first few Tim Burton Batman movies of the 80's. In many ways, Keaton's once promising career never fully recovered from being Batman. His wallet certainly never suffered from playing the Caped Crusader, but his artistic soul, instincts, reputation and career most assuredly did. Keaton, just like Riggan Thomson, had not only lost his artistic soul, but he had also lost the thing most precious in the entertainment industry…cultural relevance. Riggan's staging of a 'comeback' play is on one level, an attempt to save his artistic soul by returning to the birthplace of acting…the theatre, and doing a work by Carver, a writer who once encouraged a young Riggan to really pursue being an actor. But as the ice cold theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (brilliantly played by Lindsay Duncan) tells Riggan, "You aren't a real actor, you're a celebrity". Ouch…the truth hurts, as they say, because on another level Riggan proves Tabitha right, by using his return to the theatre as just a way for him to get some temporary artistic credibility (Mike Shiner's aforementioned 'prestige') in order to return to cultural relevance, and thus fame ('popularity'). Of course, the same could be said of Keaton, who in returning to a smaller, independent, art-house type film, is trying to re-ignite not only his long lost acting credibility (prestige), but also his fame and cultural relevance (popularity). Keaton has gotten nominated for a Golden Globe and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he gets an Oscar nomination, which brings with it prestige. So this film may work for him on both the prestige and popularity counts. Time will only tell how things play out, I certainly hope he doesn't fling himself out of a high-rise window.



What is fascinating about Birdman is that it plays with the multiple ways in which reality is perceived from an artists (or at least an actor's) point of view, and lets all of those various realities mix together to help the viewer try and understand why Riggan is so out of and off balance. His world and his perception of the world never settles down enough for him to stand firmly upon it and claim one reality as his own, so he stumbles from one perception of reality to the next, never fully understanding any one that he inhabits.



Riggan has a sign up on his dressing room mirror which reads, "A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing". This is a bit of wisdom that Riggan is never fully able to integrate into his psyche. Riggan, like most famous people, or formerly famous people, is stuck between being an actual human being and being a human creation. Is he defined by what people are saying about him on Facebook, or how many twitter followers he has? Is he defined by what the critics say of him? Or of what studio heads think of him? Or of what films roles he is offered, or how many awards he has won, or how much money he makes? Or is he defined by his past success as Birdman, or has his past success as Birdman actually become a failure and does that define him? All confusing stuff but it can be boiled down to this…there are two questions that famous people, whether they be actors, reality stars, cable news talking heads, politicians or general wannabes wrestle with on an everyday basis…1. what do people think of me? and 2. what do the really important people think of me?….and not always in that exact order.

The artist is not spared in the distorted perception of reality discussion either. Edward Norton's Mike Shiner is a successful broadway actor, the quintessential stage actor. He is so lost in his art that he is unable to actually be a real, live person anywhere except on stage in front of an audience. He is so committed to his art in fact, that the only time he has been able to get an erection in the last six months is on stage in front of a live audience during a performance of Riggan's 'comeback play'. He is self aware enough to know that he is a disaster area of a human being, but is so cocksure as an actor that he is willing to overlook the 95% of his life off-stage in order to 'shine' for that 5% of the time he is on stage. The artist, along with the fame hungry star, can lose their balance in the search for their validation of choice. As Mike Shiner puts it, "popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige". Shiner is the artistic shadow of Riggan, and in turn, Riggan is the shadow of Shiner, both distorted by their quest, one for popularity, one for prestige. Flip sides of the same coin.

"I do not like the man who squanders life for fame; give me the man who living makes a name" - Emily Dickinson

The lesson to take from Birdman, (and a life in the acting business) is that fame is a disease. The pursuit of it is an act of the insane. With fame comes a deep moral and ethical decay and rot. The world of the famous is filled with corruption, depravity, self-loathing and paranoia. When a person attains fame, they cease to be a human being, and morph into a soul-less product. Just like any large corporation, be it Exxon, Time-Warner or Goldman Sachs, the famous may have legal 'personhood' but they are not actual human beings.  This is the sickness of fame. It strips those who have it of their human being-ness, and that is why it strips those of us looking upon them of our humaneness. We project all of our hopes and fears upon them, often all at the same time. When a person is so inundated with all of these projections, they can't help but be overwhelmed by them as if by being struck by a tsunami. Their true selves get obliterated, and the person they were, for good or for ill, vanishes, and is replaced with a new self, that is false and manufactured. The only antidote to the disease and addiction of fame is to actively work against it and to cultivate a grounded life and a sense of true self. Fame as an off-shoot of being genuinely talented, is difficult enough, even when it is vigorously shunned, but fame that is a result of  sheer ambition and force of will that is pursued to fill a desperate psychological need or satiate a malignant narcissism, is an act of madness that will most assuredly result in self immolation. Birdman lays that hard truth bare for all to see, and it is a lesson that America would be wise to learn in this age of the reality television star and the celebration of the minimally talented.

"Whatever begins, also ends" - Seneca

As much as I enjoyed Birdman, and I genuinely did, there is one major flaw, and in some ways it undermines the entirety of the film. The ending is terribly bungled, so much so that it leaves me scratching my head because they actually had the chance to end it perfectly twice and let those endings pass and instead settled for a muddled and bewildering ending that scuttles the interest and brilliance that leads up to it. The film ends with Riggan jumping out a hospital window, and his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) entering the empty hospital room and not finding her father and seeing the window open she goes to it and looks out. First she looks down, as if to find his body splattered on the sidewalk, when she doesn't, she then looks up…and sees something and smiles. We don't see what she sees, but I would assume that Riggan has become The Birdman, or a legend and now resides among the stars or something along those lines. He has become immortal at last. That ending is fine in and of itself, but it doesn't work because in the context of the film, there were not one but two different endings leading up to it, thus altering and undermining the final beat of the movie. The first aborted ending is when Riggan is on stage with a real gun and not the prop gun of the play, and holds it to his head and pulls the trigger in front of a packed house on stage. The screen goes black. The film could have ended there and people would have left talking about it. How people will literally (and figuratively) kill themselves for fame and stardom. This is a major theme running through the American psyche at the moment and numerous films are exploring the subject, from Whiplash to Foxcatcher to Birdman. The 'shooting yourself on stage' ending leaves us talking about those type of issues and our celebrity and fame infected and obsessed culture as we leave the movie theatre and for days and weeks after. 

The second ending comes right after the first, we come back from a black screen following the shooting to find Riggan in the hospital, he survived, but he shot his nose off. He has literally (and figuratively) cut, or in this case shot, his nose off to spite his face. On the other hand, he is on the cover of all the newspapers and the hot topic on television, everyone is talking about him, and even giving him great reviews. He is back to relevance, both artistic and fame-wise, prestige and popularity. He sits in bed thinking about it all, the madness of it, the hell that was fame when he once knew it, the road that lies ahead of being back in-the-mix of the decadent, vicious, vapid and vacant world of hollywood and pop culture. Keaton is brilliant in this scene, he captures Riggan's conflicted feelings and fear perfectly. It would have been an absolutely fantastic way to end the film, with just a close up of Keaton as he hears that he IS BACK ON TOP, and seeing what that really means to someone who has lived through it before and knows he won't live through it again this time, and how empty and toxic the prize he has just won really is. Cut to black…prepare Oscar speech. But again, they didn't do that, they instead have a few more minutes of the film which just aren't necessary and which undercut the brilliance that preceded it and disrupt and alter the rhythm of the film. I have been trying to figure out why the decision to end the film where they did was made, it is baffling. It isn't a more 'hollywood' ending, in fact it is still an 'art house' ending, just a more muddled and less coherent one. And of the three artistic endings it could have used, it is without question the weakest. 

As a result of the unskillful ending of the film, I had the experience of finding the film to be…well...forgettable. That is not to say that I didn't enjoy the experience of watching it in the theatre, and it is also not to say that it isn't a good film, it is to say that by faltering at the end the film does not end up staying with you for very long. You don't walk out of the theatre and talk about it for hours. You don't think about it and mull it over for the following days and weeks. The film had the chance to be a sumptuous feast if it had gotten its ending right, but instead it lurches from one false ending to the next, which ultimately, like chinese food, leaves you hungry twenty minutes later.

In conclusion, Birdman is a very good film that I really enjoyed watching, with solid and sometimes spectacular performances by the entire cast, but it misses out on being a great film by not getting the oh-so-critical ending right, and that is a terrible shame. As I said, I did enjoy the film, but I do wonder if 'normal' people, in other words, 'non-actors' or 'non-entertainment industry' people will enjoy it quite as much as I did. But with all that said I recommend you go see it, if for no other reason than to get a glimpse into the madness of the life of being an actor, or even worse...a successful actor.

© 2014